There is a lot happening in my life right now that is making it difficult to write posts for this blog, but I am trying. However, during this period, I've had another opportunity to preach, and that is now available below! Video captured by Stephen Hemenway, audio edited by Quenton Chestang-Pittman, video edited by me.
I would like to take this opportunity to clarify a point in the sermon that I am aware I did not adequately clarify when delivering it, regarding church membership and participating in mission. I stated at one point in the sermon that if the mission God has called an individual to and the mission of their church do not align, they should ask if they are at the right church. I stand by that statement, but I did not give any indication on what to look for when considering that issue, which feels irresponsible of me in hindsight. I do, however, have more room to explore that issue here than I would have as a tertiary point in a sermon, and I intend to take advantage of that fact.
What I mean by that statement is this: if God has called a person to a specific work, and called a person to a specific church body, then the person is also called to contribute to the specific mission that church is tasked with, and certainly not to hinder it. Likewise, the church is called to contribute to the specific mission the person is called to, and certainly not to hinder it. The Biblical statements about every member of the church needing every other member and every part of the body having a necessary function attest to this. If that is true, then it must also be true that a person who feels called to a mission that hinders, or is hindered by, the mission of their church is either on the wrong mission or at the wrong church or, in some hopefully more rare occasions, the church has the wrong mission; and it is vitally important that they find out which it is and correct it. The question is how to do that.
The first step is always going to be prayer and scripture, by the way. Going to God for wisdom and clarity, digging into the Bible for anything that may grant that wisdom and clarity, and earnestly listening for Him to speak will be necessary if you want an honest, usable answer. Every piece of advice that follows assumes you are only implementing it after spending some time in prayer and the scriptures. Also remember that this is only advice; the Bible does not give us a check list for this, and I can only share as much wisdom as I have so far.
The mission for which you are called is one which you, powered by the Holy Spirit, can do. This doesn't necessarily mean it is one you can finish, but it is certainly one you can perform for the season in which you are called to it. This simple statement gives us a few key things to look for:
Consider Moses. His gifting and skills enabled him to lead a large body of people, to judge fairly and honorably, to write the texts they would need going forward, and to face great trials. His interest in protecting his fellow children of Jacob enabled him to see their need and desire to find some freedom for them. His life experiences gave him access to Pharaoh, knowledge of the Midian desert, the skills he used leading Israel, and an unshakable faith that God would do exactly what He said He would do. His difficulty at speech meant he needed always to lean on God for his words and on his brother to deliver them, and his willingness to run when things got hairy meant he had to rely on God to be the example of strong leadership Israel needed.
Note first that this advice is only about mission compatibility. Nothing said in the sermon or here should be taken as an encouragement to leave a church over differences in style or preference. There may be times when you must leave a church for other reasons, and some of what follows may help in those situations, but this section is for a specific issue and should not be generalized.
Some initial questions:
If none of these resolve the issue (and sometimes even if they do), you need to talk to the church leadership. The exact person will vary based on your church's leadership structure and your relationships to them, but identify someone in a position to handle your questions and who you feel comfortable receiving honest answers from. Ideally, you will have been already talking to this person while analyzing your calling.
Personal mission and church mission do not have to be identical to be compatible. Our church hosts a growing food pantry which some members feel strongly called to lead or participate in; the mission statement of the church does not include that, but it does serve the church's mission goal of serving the community in a Christ-centered way that enables opportunities for us to share the gospel. Take the time to find out whether or not your calling and the church mission are actually incompatible. It is entirely possible that the church leadership will know about directions the church is going, ministry opportunities, or just detail about the mission that you don't know for one reason or another, and they can point you to a way to do what you are called to do under the umbrella of the church's mission. It is, in fact, entirely possible that what you are called to do is something that doesn't exist at the church yet because they are waiting for someone called to do it.
Seek ways to serve. Use your spiritual gifts under the guidance of the church and for the building up of the body. As much as possible, seek ways to be an active, contributing part of what your church is doing. But if all of this is not working, and it becomes apparent that you are simply not built for what the church is doing, then it may be time to prayerfully look into places where you can be active and invested.
Look, regardless of the church leadership structure where you are, the fact is that God puts leaders in His churches for a reason. The actual task of analyzing this matter should be handled primarily by the church leadership. By calling them to leadership, God has also called them to see the mission and push forward in that; and by becoming a member of a church, everyone else has submitted themselves to trust the leadership to do exactly that. There are times when questioning or even challenging the leadership is necessary, but if it is a habit or something you feel no hesitation to do, going to God about your relationship to leadership should come before your challenge is delivered.
That being said, when the leadership revisits the church mission, it will generally follow pretty similar steps to those for analyzing personal calling, with the additional understanding that church missions are generally paired with church visions; the latter being where the church is going, and the former being how it will get there. Wise church leaders will look at how the people God has called to that body can do a work that uses the available gifts, skills, and interests to engage with the church's context to participate in a work that only God can bring to fruit.
"But to the extent evangelicals despise the small places, we will fail them. We cannot serve what we despise."
The answer to the first question is essentially that small places are both better and worse than the picture our assumptions about them may paint. These first few chapters explore the unique problems, opportunities, and cultural tendencies that small places offer. It also defines the concept of small places, for the purposes of the book, to be "countryside and communities that are relatively small in population, influence, and economic power" (22). Witmer draws from available surveys and data, as well as his own experiences in both rural Maine and small town Massachusetts, to explore the current condition of small places and the ways the gospel may interact with them. While he regularly refers back to the role of the church in interacting with various aspects of small place life, this section is very clearly aimed more at description than application. The goal could best be described as helping the reader see small places the way God sees them. After all, doing so is the only way to honestly answer his first major question about what small places are like. This focus is presented as part of building his argument, which continues in the second section.
"A theological vision for ministry to small places must recognize the deep sinfulness, brokenness, and complexity of people everywhere, in places big and small."
The second section of the book begins to look for application. Witmer encourages the practice of establishing a theological vision in ministry, and points to the example of Tim Keller's vision for cities as a guiding post. Where the first section guides the reader to see small places as God sees them, the second section challenges the reader to love small places the way God loves them.
He then begins to apply the gospel and the examples in scripture to our models of ministry, arguing that the strategy of God is not always the strategies men would choose and that there is value in the small and slow. This section closes out with a chapter encouraging readers to invest in the place where they are and discussing how that looks different in a small place than in a big place, and then a chapter addressing some of the personal struggles that can make small-place ministry difficult to carry out over the long term.
Finally, the third section answers the question, "should I minister in a small place," with a call to ask ourselves a series of clarifying questions. It raises good and bad reasons to go to small places, as well as good and bad reasons not to. Rather than telling the reader to go to small places, it provides guidance on how to determine where God is calling the reader and encouragement to serve there faithfully.
"Churches and ministers who live outside the circle, who ignore their community, will also be ignored by their community."
While the book does allow for its definition of small places to include isolated neighborhoods within cities, much of the language of the book assumes a rural or small-town context. Personally, I found much of it easily applicable to the small and forgotten city where I grew up, a place that cannot be described as rural or a small town in any sense but qualifies as a small place because it had lost most of its population and all of its economic power when the steel industry collapsed. I would encourage readers to focus on what Witmer says about these places and allow them to paint the picture he is trying to present rather than limiting focus to the most overt examples he includes.
Overall, I believe Witmer achieved the goal stated in the introduction. He answers all three of his guiding questions in thorough, detailed, and considerate ways that allow application to all kinds of small places without falling into the trap of assuming they are all the same. Most importantly, he maintains his gospel focus throughout the book. Not only is he concerned with us carrying the gospel wherever we are, he takes the time to clarify the content of that gospel and pours much ink on the role of the gospel in forming us as we work.
"But if the Bible’s clear articulation of the gospel doesn’t shape our thinking, our thinking will fashion our own self-generated gospel, one that conforms to our own expectations."
As someone who has spent most of his life in small places but has in recent years begun to buy into big place emphasis, the book was personally challenging to me. Ultimately, the book performs well at both challenging anyone who has devalued small-place ministry (whether engaged in it or not) and encouraging those who have committed to it. It is my opinion that this is a resource that should be in a great many Christian minds, whether in professional ministry or as a layperson seeking to carry out God's personal calling. Every member of the church has reason to ask the following question Witmer presents, and to consider the guidance he offers in helping to answer it.
"What if we considered this question: How is our church uniquely contributing to the universe-wide display of God’s character expressed in the gospel of Jesus Christ?"
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Small town, rural, and other unstrategic locations for church plants get even less than that. There are fewer agencies, churches, and individuals willing to take the risk to invest in a church that might never grow beyond 20-50 people simply because of location, and the few that are willing to give may still hold to their 3-5 year expectations for a plant that may take a decade or more to get to the same level of financial stability. The reasons for this longer timeframe vary, of course, by location. I had already had discussions with a pastor about how some urban (but still considered unstrategic) contexts take longer simply because they're slow to trust, while churches in rural areas may grow incredibly quickly among the people nearby but only have ten households in a close radius.
For this reason, small-place church plants require a certain degree of creativity that may exceed that demanded of large-place church planters. With less money, fewer people, fewer places to meet, and presented with an unrealistic timeline, the work is marked in a big way by how a planter sees the opportunities that exist and acts on them with the limitations they have. But, ultimately, it comes down to the work of God; beginning with the work in calling the planter.
One bit that came up during conversation was the frequency with which church planters appear to be focused on fulfilling the goals and requirements of their sending agencies more than dealing with the specific needs of their context. This concern may or may not be as common of a problem as it was being presented by the man who asked about it, but I can't deny that there is a degree to which this model of being called to a place first runs against what I've been taught in other church planting programs. The contrary view, that a church planter is called to the occupation first, is more obvious in some places than others. The most overt was the flagship class for my church planting minor, where choosing a town or neighborhood came a few steps into the process of preparing to plant a church. Get called to church planting, then find somewhere to do it.
I've had some reservations about this approach for some time, though I've rarely had need to state as much or even really clarify it for myself. I must admit there's a certain degree of reality to it, after all, my wife and I believe we're being called to be involved in church planting, and each place we've ended up from that point onward has had some degree of consideration about what that call might look like where we are. In that way, the call to be church planters came before a few towns we've lived in, but I think the point is in how we think about it more so than chronological order. If we make the practice of church planting our primary focus, we invest in the church plant more than we invest in the lives of the people around us. A plant that leads to the creation of an established church surely must include some investment in the community, if only to get people in the door, but where we put our focus is where we will put our hearts and I believe God loves the people we are called to serve far more than He loves the idea of having a hip new congregation.
We need to be willing to let go of the plant if it means more people will come to Christ and God will receive more glory. We need to be willing to not even start a plant if there is another avenue available that God would prefer us to take. When we enter the community with the primary objective of planting a church before we invest in the community and learn what God would see done there, we run the risk of leaning on our own understanding and ideas to get the results we think are best. I've been guilty of it. I think what Gordon articulated is something we need to hear more often: we are called to a place and the people in it, for the glory of God, first. And if God wants to plant a new church, then we should eagerly do so, in accordance with His design for it and the needs and unique traits of that community. But if we come in with our detailed plan for starting a new church in a town where we know nothing but the stats we downloaded from a community profile, we need to seriously ask whether what we're doing is our idea, or God's.
The big question raised when discussing envy in the session was, "what does my envy say about who or what I actually value?" The very nature of envy is such that it reveals our desire for something other than what God has granted us, and this raises the question: are we seeking after Him and His glory, or are we seeking after something else? Are we more concerned with fame or money or validation than faithfully serving our Lord in whatever capacity He has determined? When we grow envious of the ministry someone else has been called to, we reveal that something about their ministry is so valuable to us that the gifts of God in our own lives don't quite make up for not having it.
So what do we do about it? Fundamentally, they said, envy has pride at its root. We fall into envy because our idea of ourselves says that we deserve what these other people have. So the first step in fighting our envy is to fight our pride.
One phrase that actively attacks our pride are the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30, that "He must increase, but I must decrease," but this only helps us stay humble if we take it at face value. They cited an interview with Roy Ortland where he confessed that he has been tempted to view ministry as more like "He must increase, and I must increase."
A humble Christian is content to be laid aside if God has any other tools to work with which may bring Him more glory.
But addressing our pride is just the first step. We cannot simply remove the desire to be great and not replace it with something else. That there is joy in serving God and serving others in His name, and we can pursue that joy as something greater than our markers for success or our own ideas on what a perfect ministry would look like. Ultimately, the cure for envy is the joy of the Lord in whatever we do.
Taking time to rest also glorifies God in its own way. It was noted that taking time to rest reminds us and others that God doesn't actually need us; He can see to it that the church is tended, even on our days off. It also showcases the fact that we, as Christians, rest in the completed work of Christ. We are not constantly striving and pushing and breaking ourselves to honor Him, but rather we can trust, and rest, and enjoy Him in all that we do.
They pointed out that Jesus is, ultimately, the One who will both honor us and provide our needs. These are things He promises to do in His word, and when we put weight on our churches to do that beyond their ability (or ours, often in the case of honor) we feed that disappointment and encourage bitterness. Ultimately, what we want from our churches when we go down this road is something that only God can provide, and we need to repent and trust in Him to do what He has promised to do.
What things do we allow to steal our joy? What does it look like to repent, and to trust God?
It's God all the way down. Christ's promise to build His church comes as an immediate response to, as He notes, a divine revelation to Peter about the nature of Christ. Not only is it that Christ is taking direct responsibility for the work to come, but He is also informing us that it is, in the end, always God who reveals any of this to us. Our salvation is out of our hands, no amount of confession or knowledge or experience will save us apart from God shining the truth into our lives and giving new life to our hearts. At no point is our salvation or our mission are we relying on our own ability or power. Which is good, because as Peter shows us, we have a tendency to screw it up when we do it our way.
Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal [this] to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.
Matthew 9:1-12, 35-38
More will be discussed about this in tomorrow's post on the breakout sessions, but the first principle Pinckney noted was to be specific about geography. Jesus knew where He was called to work, and He focused all His efforts on that place. It was more important to Him to be where God wanted Him to be than to be in the centers of power in His day, whether Rome or Alexandria or even, often, Jerusalem. He was faithful to work where He was called, and we should be the same.
There are some great things that can only really happen in a small ministry that stays in one place for a very long time. Pinckney used the example of one pastor who had been present at the birth of one woman and then, much later, that woman's son. The impact someone like that has on the lives of the people they serve, if they serve well, is difficult to measure. So we need to invest where we are, dig in for the long haul, and not worry about being somewhere else unless God calls us somewhere else. After all, he warned, "we think the grass is greener on the other side, but really it's just a septic problem."
Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.
The message Christ carried informed everything He did and came up everywhere He spoke. At the beginning of Matthew 9, Jesus is confronted with a man whose obvious problem was paralysis; but Christ knew the deeper issue was sin, and here made the fact clear that His healings were not simply aimed at making people better, but proving His power to make them whole.
The point in raising this story was to note that the work of the gospel runs deeper than we expect. If we only look at the surface, as so may people seeking healing did, we miss the point. When we do this in our ministries, we miss God working in the hearts of people and get discouraged. Recognizing that God is working in ways we can't see helps us trust that His methods are better than ours.
Do Good Intentionally
Jesus sought to know where people were hurting, and served them. One way we emulate Him and focus on doing the work He has for us is serving others. It is harder to think that we're in charge when we're doing things specifically for other people rather than ourselves, and we show the servant heart of Christ to those we reach out to.
Shaped by Compassion
One of the things that helps us remember the importance of the people in small places, and keeps our focus on doing the work of God rather than our own plans, is the function of compassion. What drives God to put us where He has is that He loves the people there, and as was addressed in the previous post, so must we.
Matthew 9 closes with Christ telling His disciples to pray eagerly for workers. All of our work in Christ's name relies on an ongoing practice of prayer, and this specific prayer reminds us that we are not alone and that God is the one who sends workers. Maybe He'll send new people from outside, or maybe He'll raise up new gospel workers from among those who receive the gospel by our witness--probably both. But going to Him constantly reminds us of our need for Him, and asking Him for the workers to see the gospel spread reminds us that we operate by His design, on His schedule, and with the people He has ordained to the task. And as long as we ground ourselves on that knowledge, we will have much greater resistance against the temptation to do things our way.
The problem is when we only put resources into those places. Because the fact is, if the gospel is going to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible, someone needs to be going into the places between the strategic launch points. Whether they go from the hub cities, or from neighboring communities, or rise up from within, the farm towns and small places will need to have someone going to them. The model that relies on pouring resources into hub cities cannot then remain in hub cities or its entire justification breaks down. If these are points chosen for their ability to expand then they must expand into the places that were not chosen. If we're focusing on Boston for its ability to impact places like Townsend and Sturbridge, at some point we need to be sending people and resources to Townsend and Sturbridge. That's the point.
Which is fine as a logical and logistical explanation for why there must be investment both in large and small places, but Witmer, as befitting a speaker at a conference for ministers, focused instead on scriptural reasons.
Small, Slow, Unstrategic
One of the condemnations of the gospel message I have actually received in my life is that if an all-powerful and all-wise God wanted the world to know the truth of Himself and His message, He should have had the foresight to deliver it somewhere other than a backwater corner of an ancient empire. And I've heard the counterargument that Galilee and Judea actually sit on fairly important trade routes and would therefore have some strategic value to the spread of such a message, but Witmer would appear to argue that the atheist has noticed something about the gospel that we are too quick to dismiss: that Galilee really is a backwater corner of the Roman Empire and really should raise some questions about its utility in a global mission.
Perhaps the answer is that the gospel isn't, at its core, utilitarian.
Is that not what we see in the life of Jesus Christ, anyway? We take for granted that Mary and Joseph were of the line of David, so He fulfills that prophesy, but have we just been assuming that David had no descendants at that time in a more noble position who could have raised the Son of God in some degree of pomp and splendor? Why pick the great-grandchildren that live in a dusty little town doing menial trade work? Why make arrangements for this child to be born in a stable away from the hub city of the region? They run off to Egypt and make no impression on the people there worth recording, then return to Nazareth where Jesus lives in obscurity until His mission begins in earnest and He spends most of that mission wandering around places where crowds could find nothing to eat. He consistently whittled down the number of people following Him, to the point that despite having a massive following at various times and whole cities that wanted to declare Him king and appearing after His death to hundreds of people at once, only 120 are still hanging around waiting for His promise to be fulfilled at Pentecost. How often we consider a church of 120 people to be too small to notice!
Witmer notes that the Kingdom begins very small in scripture, and that God consistently shows concern for what is small. The small places like Bethlehem, the smallest son of Jesse, the smallest bit of faith, the jots and tittles of the Law. In ministering to the small places, we are continuing the work that God has always had for these locations.
"The gospel gives us permission to have slow ministries." One thing that strikes me is that, while we do have moments of explosive growth in the church in Acts, the way in which we read the book can sometimes make us think it was always like that. One story right after another, with Paul being saved outside of Damascus and then going out and beginning to preach and going home where he's pulled by Barnabas to Antioch and then turned around and sent on their first missionary journey. But we know from his other writings that Paul spent at least 12 years coming to understand the gospel with which he had been entrusted before the vast majority of that even happened. How often we try to rush things to fit our timetable, this idealized version of the story in our heads, when God intends to take the time to make sure it's done right.
Witmer repeatedly noted that we should "want revival more and need it less." By wanting it more he wasn't saying we don't desire it hard enough; rather, the point was that we too often treat the big explosive moments as the whole picture and judge ourselves and others by whether or not these experiences are happening. But our validation shouldn't come from how quickly we outgrow our buildings or double our baptisms. These things are great, and we should value them and seek after them, but we cannot treat them as the whole picture of God's work. We should want to see everyone we've ever met come to church and make a profession of faith this Sunday; but when we consider ourselves a failure for having any less, we lose sight of the fact that our entire role is to be faithful in the task. Faithfulness is always marked more by time and consistency than by results.
According to worldly wisdom, the gospel is a mess. Sending your own son to die on behalf of people who hate him in order to win some of them over is a terrible strategy by any human standard. Having all of the work in establishing your religion happen in a place that has no strategic, economic, or cultural importance just seems like poor planning. Pouring yourself out into the lives of a handful of illiterate fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot while turning away scribes and people ready to install a new king almost sounds like planning to fail.
But this is the foundation of our faith. The gospel, and the ways it gets worked out, isn't always going to seem like it makes sense or that it's aimed at making the biggest impact in the fastest way possible. The nature of the gospel actively stops us from thinking that we can only justify the use of resources on the best available options. It gives us permission to focus and really spend time and effort on people who can bring nothing big or new to the table. In fact, it basically requires us to do so. To do anything else not only fails to showcase the way God has consistently worked across the centuries, but also kind of suggests that we think we're big enough deals to have warranted His attention. We misrepresent God and ourselves and only encourage heightened egos if we act like the gospel only belongs to the strategic few.
In the end, the point would seem to be this: no amount of strategy, or speed, or size, makes one soul worth less in the Kingdom of God than another. Christ died just as much for the lost in rural Maine as the lost in downtown Burlington. We cannot, as His ministers, view the people in one place as less worthy of our time and talents than any other.
This is the famous stone
The Forgotten Places
There's good reason for targeting these locations, and Small Town Summits explained at the event that they recognize their importance. The problem being raised, however, is that there are millions in America, billions around the world, who do not live in nice strategic locations, and our laser focus on making a big impact has left far too many of these people without a gospel witness and so many small town pastors feeling like they have no support.
At the Central/Western Massachusetts gathering, it was explained that the 2016 election opened a lot of eyes to just how many people were out in these places looking for something and feeling forgotten. Small Town Summits is not the only movement eyeing up the small towns and rural areas, but they are heavily involved in it. To that end, they "provide New England pastors and lay leaders opportunities to consider together how God means for the gospel to form our ministry in small places."
Northfield was covered in thick fog on Saturday morning, and my pastor and I drove right past the entrance and had to turn around to find it. We gathered in a library and auditorium that is now part of Thomas Aquinas College but was originally part of the seminary D.L. Moody established in his hometown. We were then almost immediately separated as I ran into people I know from school in Vermont and got caught up in conversations.
There were three sessions and one breakout time, with the first session doubling as an explanation of the summits themselves. The event was intimate enough that we were able to have each attendee stand and introduce themselves without bogging things down.
As will be discussed in the following posts about each session, we basically had two main speakers and they both did a great job of presenting the importance of small place ministry and some practical concerns that arise in that context. The worship was very good and, while I had only heard one song before, any confusion on my part was my own fault for forgetting to listen to the tracks I was emailed in advance. The food was great and the hour given for lunch gave us plenty of time to meet the people sitting around us.
So I decided to cross-post it here with this disclaimer. I also want to note that part of it takes place at or in response to an event hosted by Small Town Summits, which is an awesome work happening in New England that I would encourage you to check out and support and learn from. A link to their website appears in the story below. I also took notes at that event that I was planning to explore some more and share what I learned on this blog; so I wanted to make you aware that while I touch on some things here that I will also touch on in later posts, the focus here is on the impact those things had on my story. Note that because this was originally written for my personal blog rather than this site, it has a somewhat different feel than some of my other posts. I have not edited it in any significant way, only added media and one little note I realized I had missed.
Click "Read More" below for the rest.
I stated that putting Donald Trump in the White House would legitimize a practice calling itself Christianity that has little, if anything, to do with Christ. That his election would not only encourage the false teachers he surrounded himself with during his campaign, but that it would embolden a host of problems that the church was harboring and failing to address. This past Sunday, the sermon touched on one of the ways I feel that concern has been realized.
The Foreigner Among Us
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing [mother] tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 (NASB)
The big question of the sermon was, do we reach out to the people around us with the same love and passion that Paul is here describing? He noted that churches in America have a particular opportunity of world evangelism based on the fact that the world is coming to us, rather than requiring we go to it. And when they come here, we have an opportunity to reach out and build relationships and show the love of Christ to them by sharing, not only the gospel, but our lives with them. But, of course, that relies on us actually welcoming them. So the sermon reminded me of some things.
God of our Sojourning
"Thus has the LORD of hosts said, 'Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.'
Zechariah 7:9-10 (NASB)
In Deuteronomy, God repeatedly makes the case that part of the reason Israel should remember to care for the sojourner among them is that they were, themselves, sojourners in Egypt. It's worth noting that, during this address, Moses isn't speaking to people who were adults in Egypt; this is after the forty years of wandering, when the generation that came from Egypt had died out. This is not a command given to the generation that remembers Egypt. Israel as a body was a sojourner, and is told here that it must never forget that fact.
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God's] OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.
There are two grounds on which this argument stands. The first is that, while we are not under the Mosaic law as a people redeemed by grace, the ordinances given to Israel nevertheless point to some understanding of who God is and what His people should look like and we can learn from that; in this particular case, we need not conceptualize the lesson being given, as we may with laws like those banning mixed fabrics, since the reminder to care for the foreigner is given an explanation already.
The second is the nature of that explanation, and the fact that it has not changed. That the heart of God goes out to the foreigner remains equally true as long as God's heart remains the same, and we know that He does not change. And His call to remember the days of sojourning are true for Christians who sojourn in a fallen world just as much as it was true of Israelites who sojourned in Egypt.
How can we be the people of God if we will not act how God calls us to act, and love how He has loved us?
Of the first, it should be noted that our government is not actually set up to operate that way. Whether or not the apostles would have been at the borders of the Roman Empire welcoming travelers is hardly relevant when their relationship to government was fundamentally different from ours. The simplest way to put it is this: in a governmental system designed to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, what we task the government with doing is something we are doing. This also comes up in matters of social welfare, the claim that we are called to support the widow and the orphan and help the poor, sure, but we are never called to empower a government to take our money and have them do the supporting.* But this creates a division where one does not exist. When we vote for or against a program or a candidate, we are telling the government how we want it to operate on our behalf. We are directing it to function as our arms in carrying out large-scale operations beyond the scope of what we can do individually. It is no different from giving money and input to our church, or our denomination, about things we want to see happen.
As such, there is no division. If we are going to show God's love to the sojourner among us, we have a direct responsibility to support programs that allow sojourners to exist among us. Our attempts to support programs that restrict or remove sojourners from our midst are nothing less than an act of rebellion to the mission of our God.
The second is personal/national safety and, while literally all available data shows that there is no considerable threat from allowing refugees (or immigrants in general) in, the main focus for us as Christians is that our nation ultimately doesn't matter and our lives are already lost. We owe our nation no more allegiance than we owe Kazakhstan, because, as stated above, this is not our home. We have certain obligations to respect the authority that we live under, but that does not mean we give that authority more power and worth than it deserves. Nor will it be eternal. America will fall someday, whether to mortal forces or to the coming Kingdom of our Lord. What, exactly, are we preserving? And is preserving it more important than obedience to God?
As for personal safety, this is never guaranteed to us. We walk the path of martyrs. It is better for a terrorist to walk into a church and be greeted with the gospel than to allow him to continue in ignorance of the offer of salvation, even if he destroys that church and everyone in it. It is better to lose our lives by opening our doors to the unsaved than to live a long life and stand before God having never carried out His commands because we were more afraid of man than of Him.
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 10:28 (NASB)
Historically, the primary means by which the local church extends its mission to the global stage has been by sending out individuals who have a working partnership with the local church and operate in a different, frequently overseas, local context. A working partnership is more than simply sending money, however, and requires that the church actually participate in global work on a fairly regular basis. This is the basic purpose of short term mission trips: to participate in and support the work of the church outside of the immediate local context. Short term missions, however, are a fairly new phenomenon in American Christianity. Bob Garrett, then-professor of missions at Dallas Baptist University, wrote in 2008 that “In the 1960s and into the 1970s most denominational mission boards and missionary sending agencies were still sending out exclusively career personnel” and went on to explain that the rise of short term missions was not only unexpected, but actively opposed by some. As such, there is much about the practice of short term mission trips to be clarified and understood.
Operating in this manner requires a great deal of planning, and the local church must have an understanding of what it is they are trying to do by sending short term mission trips and how best to accomplish those goals. This article is intended to give an overview of some of the primary concerns that arise in planning a trip, with a particular focus on the role of the church administrator in planning, organizing, and carrying out both a church policy of short term missions and individual trips a given church may send out.
The Church Administrator
Over a year of planning and organizing cannot be done as the background noise of someone partially invested in the work. Such a task must be given over to someone who is committed to the operational side of the mission, who can think about long-term objectives, and who understands the facets of planning a successful trip. In a church large enough to have a dedicated church administrator, this would be part of their work, in conjunction with any missions coordinator the church may have. For any other church, however, someone needs to take on the responsibility of organizing the missions work of the church. A volunteer missions coordinator should be selected with a great deal of discretion; they are taking on a highly important role, and the church needs to know that they are committed to the work, sound in their theology and goals, and submitting to the pastor and the church.
Once this policy is in place it can guide much of the process that follows. Any trip that simply does not conform to what the church is able to support will be revealed quickly before resources, including time, are spent on it. The issue of calling is a major one, however. A recognition that there is an actual calling involved in cross-cultural mission ensures that the vetting process for personnel, especially trip leaders, is focused on working under God’s design instead of just filling a trip with an impressive number of people. Mission trips will not be as effective if they do not have at their core the understanding that God wants this set of people in this place to accomplish this work. A church policy for mission trips should aim to ensure that they are built to this standard.
The reason it is advised to get trip ideas from long-term missionaries and to let them set the course of the work is that there is growing concern over how we do short term trips. The Catholic Church, for instance, published an article in 2015 in which the Mike Gable introduced his premise with the statement, “I am convinced mission offices, parishes, and schools across the United States need to stop funding and sending harmful, arrogant, and poorly trained short-term mission groups.” The reason for this blunt condemnation is what Gable refers to as a “‘heroic’ model of mission” that relies on the notion that Europeans and North Americans have “a sacrificial duty to ‘bring civilization and God’ to the so-called ‘pagans’ who supposedly needed Western culture to be fulfilled human beings.” This description of the actual effects of this mission style reverberates across denominational lines. Gable notes evidence that points to communities receiving teams agreeing to whatever idea the teams have, out of concern for offending their guests, even when the work is not beneficial to the community and may actually need to be undone as soon as the team leaves. In an interview, anthropologist Jeff Haanan argued,
I am not for the narrative that has typically driven these trips: ‘We are going because there’s this tremendous need out there that we have to meet. And there’s this burden that we have as the wealthy country to go and do something in another place.’ I support transforming this narrative so that it becomes, ‘How can we connect with what God is doing in other parts of the world? How can we learn to be good partners with Christians already in these places? How can we participate in what the church is already doing in these countries in effective ways?
If a number of missionaries have provided ideas for teams to address, the church administrator or individual responsible for planning trips should take time to examine each, alongside the actual resources of the church, to determine which ones are feasible. A church with no young people and a lack of construction-minded members will simply not be a great benefit to a community that needs houses built. A church with a poor congregation may have difficulty raising money to support an extended stay or a project that involves a large amount of supplies.
During this stage, members of the church can be approached about prayerfully considering taking part in a trip. Those who are interested should be aided in establishing a network of supporters who will pray for the trip and the individuals from that point until the team has returned home. Looking at the gifts and calling of those who feel led to participate may be very helpful in narrowing down the options for where the team will go and what kind of work they will perform while there.
Once the works that cannot be done by the sending church or do not fit the mission of the church have been ruled out, that which remains can be investigated further. Gathering more information on the exact details about what would be needed for each possible trip, examining the urgency of each idea, and pitching these ideas to potential team members and leaders may make one option stand out as the best fit for this body at this time. It may instead result in multiple trips being planned for different times. Once the church has decided upon a specific trip to plan at this time, the next phase can begin.
A Year in Advance
That year gives the team members, who have already been building a team of people to pray for them, time to begin raising any necessary funds. It gives them time to get passports if needed, to request time off work, to make arrangements to be dropped off and picked up at the location where the team will meet for their journey. It gives the church time to arrange transportation, buy tickets, and secure housing at lower costs. According to Forbes, the best time to buy plane tickets, for example, varies by season but usually falls into the window of two to three months in advance. Having solid plans nine to ten months before buying plane tickets gives the church ample time to know exactly who needs those tickets.
During this year, if the team is traveling out of the country, it is also important to have team members visit their doctors and make any necessary arrangements for vaccinations, prescriptions, or other medical concerns specific to the location. If the team will be arriving in the summer and the scout visited the summer before, they can give the team detailed information about some of the concerns they noticed thriving at that time, such as mosquito populations or water conditions.
This needs to be a year of prayer, of active work in planning details, and of getting the church excited for the mission. The church is sending this team--the church needs to be on board with what the team is doing. Taking the time during that year to introduce the community, the need, and the vision for this specific trip ensures that the church has time to think over what is being planned and get excited to participate in it. It gives people who would be interested but had not previously expressed interest the chance to get involved. It also provides an opportunity to raise money from the church itself. In discussing fundraising in general, Dave Wilkinson noted that donors need
...the chance to give realistically and prayerfully. This includes advance notice before the offering is received. It means hearing how this special offering fits into the giving scheme of the whole year and what other special offerings are anticipated. For contributors, pacing is important, as is knowing what ministries they will have opportunity to support, so they can give to those closest to their hearts.
During and After the Trip
One important thing to keep in mind after a trip is that the relationship does not end when the plane lands. The team should be encouraged to continue contact with anyone they built relationship with while on site, the church should continue to cultivate a relationship with long-term missionaries and/or native pastors in the community, and that community should hold a standing option as somewhere that future teams can visit. Part of building relationships is not abandoning those relationships as soon as the immediate work is over. If short term mission trips are going to aid in the mission of the church to reach a global stage, they must open the door for the church to continue thinking and operating on a global level.
As Haanan noted, “the whole trip should be an experience of learning, growing, and serving God. Listening and learning from people, about people, about places, about what God is doing--this is God's mission, and it should be ours as well.” Everything that happens before, during, and after the trip should serve this broader purpose and bring it home to the sending church.
- Friedman, Zack. “Here’s the Best Time to Buy Airline Tickets.” Forbes. April 3, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2018/04/03/airfare-best-time-buy.
- Gable, Mike. “Heroes Not Welcome.” U.S. Catholic. April, 2015.
- Garrett, Bob. “Towards Best Practice in Short Term Missions.” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 5, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 103-120, Accessed January 24, 2019, http://www.galaxie.com/article/jbtm05-1-10.
- Greene, H. Leon. A Guide to Short Term Missions: A Comprehensive Manual for Planning an Effective Mission Trip. Waynesboro, GA: Gabriel Publishing, 2003.
- Haanan, Jeff and Brian M. Howell. “Better Partners: How Can Short-Term Mission Best Advance God's Mission?” Christianity Today. January-February 2013. Accessed January 12, 2019. http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A315069366/PPRP?u=vol_b43nbc&sid=PPRP&xid=b20c0ba8.
- Wilkinson, Dave. “Special Offerings.” In Leadership Handbook of Management & Administration, edited by James D. Berkley, 472-473. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
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