August 13, 2011
I’ve been meditating on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:23 (“But we are preaching Christ crucified”) and have come away with a couple of thoughts:
- Paul continually preached Christ. Is the same true in my life? I’m struck how many times the book of Acts reports that Paul “continued preaching the gospel.” Am I continually preaching the gospel?
- Paul preached the gospel, never as a lone ranger, but always with others. Paul surrounded himself with others who shared the same passion for preaching Christ. I think of the words of Acts 15:35: “But Paul and Barnabas along with many others remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of God.” Shortly afterwards, when Paul and Barnabas split, the first thing Paul did was find someone else to accompany him (Acts 15:40). Am I surrounded by people who preach the gospel? Beware of lone gospel rangers.
- Paul deliberately preached a difficult message — “Christ crucified.” Think with me for a minute about what Paul was doing in Corinth when he says, “but we are preaching Christ crucified.” Paul was focusing on the part of the gospel that the Corinthian culture least wanted to hear: “Jews seeks signs, Greeks seek wisdom . . . but we preach Christ crucified.” Oftentimes there is pressure on those preaching the gospel to contextualize it or to make it palatable to the audience and culture. But think about what Paul was doing. He was choosing to focus on the specific aspect of the gospel that least appealed to the Corinthians. They did not want to hear about some man who died a criminal’s death on the cross. That is so elementary, so foolish! Give us some profundity. Give us something spectacular, then we’ll listen to you. Christ remained the core of Paul’s preaching, no matter what his audience wanted to hear. Am I watering down the gospel message in an attempt to make it appealing to my culture?
May 30, 2011
Continuing my series on “living as a missionary in a small, southern town”, today I am going to focus on myths related to the Bible-belt.
Have you ever had the opportunity to share the gospel with someone who has never heard it before? It is exhilarating! Let me share something with you that may surprise you: There are people living in the Bible belt who have never heard the gospel. Are you surprised? I was when I first discovered this. I thought everyone in the south had heard the gospel so many times they were weary of it. I learned differently one day when I got the opportunity to witness to a friend in town. After simply sharing about Christ’s death and resurrection and what it means to me, I asked him if he had ever heard that before. My friend thought for a minute, and then said, “No, I sure haven’t Andy. But it really makes sense!”
I still think about those words to this day. My friend had never heard the gospel? How many others might be living nearby who have never heard?
Besides those who’ve never heard the gospel, who live in the supposed “Bible-belt”, there is a whole other issue to deal with. There are many who think they know the gospel, but really don’t. In my experience, this is the most challenging issue facing missionaries in the southern United States. People think they have Jesus, that they understand the Bible, but oftentimes all they’ve really got is a watered down placebo wrapped in fancy packaging. These types think knowing Jesus means being an official members of a church (even though they only go a couple of times a year), that they walked forward at some altar call as a kid, that they believe in God, and that they are trying to get to heaven by being good.
This scenario creates numerous difficulties for those living as missionaries in the south. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that everyone thinks “they’ve got it” already — “don’t witness to me, I’ve heard all that before, I’m alright.” People think they’ve already got the cure and that nothing is wrong, never mind the fact that these supposed Christians bear no fruit in their lives. And so, the missionary’s first task is often to convince people that they actually do not know Christ. Before they can come to the Master Physician, they must first realize that they need a cure. Their spiritually terminal disease called sin cannot be numbed by religion, and popping feel-good Tylenol won’t help either. People need to know that apart from Christ they are spiritually hopeless and dying. Bandaids won’t work, what they need is an emergency heart-transplant. And getting people to realize this is the real challenge, living as they do in a supermarket of spiritual-antidotes, each claiming to be the miracle cure.
And then there is another major problem in the “Bible-belt.” While fewer and fewer people are involved in any church, sadly many of the churches that people do attend are preaching false doctrines. I’m not just talking about the cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons (and yes, there are plenty of these in the “Bible-belt”). Rather, many churches are preaching things like, “This country is God’s country”; “You can have your best life now”; “God wants you to be filthy rich”; “Just have faith and you’ll be happy and healthy and rich”; “Christians must follow this list of rules to please God.” Many who attend church in the South are hearing such things preached on a weekly basis, and it would be better if they did not attend than to fill their minds with such teaching. Sadly, however, many continue listening and believing such teachings, thinking that the Bible supports such notions.
At this point, you might find yourself questioning whether these things are really that prevalent in the South. All I can say is that on a weekly basis I bump shoulders in town with avid church-goers who talk about these doctrines. For example, at my job I hear many, many, many customers saying with 100 percent seriousness that they are waiting for their million dollars, that they expect to wake up in perfect health, and talking with each other about other similar issues.
So, in summary we might say that living as a missionary in the south will often mean dealing with two kinds of people. First, be ready and excited about sharing the gospel with those who have never heard the gospel. And second, be ready to confront various belief systems that claim to be Christian. And remember, the “Bible-belt” is an area in need of people willing to live as full-time missionaries. Are you willing to be one of them?
May 25, 2011
In my last post on “living as a missionary in a small southern town” I focused on the poverty factor. In this post we will focus on the “wealth factor,” so to speak.
3. Reaching the Rich
In order to effectively reach the wealthy in the small southern town where I’m living, one of the first hurdles to overcome is busyness. People are just plain busy. Oftentimes both parents work full-time jobs and the kids are in school all day. So, when families find themselves with a free evening, they want to be home and spending quality time together. The last thing they want to do is spend time with some strange “missionary” seeking to build “gospel relationships.”
Now, I’m assuming that families are spending time together. Honestly, I really don’t know what they are doing because I rarely see neighbors. My wife and I walk just about every day through the surrounding neighborhoods. We walk at different times of the day, and we rarely ever see anyone outside. We have invited neighbors over for meals, only to have our invitations go unanswered. “Hermits” might be an appropriate description of the hurdle I’m describing.
All this to say that building meaningful relationships can prove to be quite a challenge. Don’t give up on your neighbors. I’ve found that focusing my efforts on my immediate next-door-neighbors has been very rewarding. We have developed quite a camaraderie with the families on both sides of our home. In fact, this evening we will be grilling out together (you would never guess what we will be cooking. Don’t ask, I’m warning you). We are still open to reaching other neighbors, but we see our immediate neighbors the most, and focus our attention and prayers on them.
But don’t just limit your efforts to your neighbors. If at all possible, try to get a job in your small town. This opens more opportunities than perhaps anything else you will do. My wife and I both have jobs in town, and so this has provided us with numerous opportunities, both with coworkers and with customers. I’ll be honest with you, it is a nice feeling to be able to go to Wal-Mart in town (or most anywhere in town) and to be able to say hi to a few acquaintances. Now, I know that not everyone will be able to work in their small town. But don’t overlook a part-time job, or even volunteer opportunities. I’ve found that working in the community in which you live gives you an immediate credibility among locals. I’ve often heard people complain that small southern towns look down on outsiders, and I’ve often wondered if the outsiders tried to work or find a job in town. There’s just something about working in the community where you live, it opens up doors and softens the “locals” towards you, even giving you a measure of respect among them: “Oh yeah, that’s Andy from the bank.”
Finally, consider getting involved in a local community organization in addition to your local church, or consider having friends from church join you in this. I’m finding that in Louisburg, the community clubs are often the heart and soul of people’s relational networks. In my town it is the Moose club; join it as soon as you can, and you will meet families of all ages.
May 23, 2011
Continuing my new series about living as a missionary in a small southern town, today I want to discuss reaching the poor.
2. The Poverty Factor
In Louisburg, as in other small towns, a large segment of the population is living in relative poverty. Effective missionaries will be aware of this and will try to reach out to the poor with an attitude of compassion. Doing so, however, can be quite a challenge. Working as a banker for the past 3 1/2 years has given me the opportunity to observe and interact with the poor from a unique perspective. From my experience at the bank, it seems that many if not most of the poor receive government assistance, including monthly financial support, food stamps, health-coverage, and money to pay their heat bills in the winter. Not always, but sometimes this can create an attitude of entitlement; the church is viewed as a sort of miniature government assistance program that will help pay utility bills, hand out food, and provide clothing — all with no obligation or committment from the recipients.
I think, therefore, that a ministry to the poor in a small southern town requires a great deal of wisdom, and even a measure of tough-love. Let me give you an example. Perhaps the church does a disservice to the poor if all we do is give them food at our food-pantries and share the gospel with those interested. In doing so, the church might possibly be encouraging those who do not work to remain idle. What would happen if instead we told them we would feed them as part of an intense mentoring program? So, for instance, we could provide them with generous groceries, and at the same time teach about biblical stewardship, a biblical work-ethic, generosity, etc. Then, the church could provide practical ways for them to implement what they’ve just been taught by assigning tasks around the building and around the community to work for the food they have just received. Some might clean the church’s building, some might maintain the grounds, others might do service projects in the community. And when all is said and done, those who partook of the church’s generosity have also received biblical instruction and practical opportunities to apply what they have just learned.
If such is not done, the church runs the risk of fostering an entitlement mentality, and of helping people to ignore Scripture’s clear teaching about work. And, even worse, the church runs the risk of failing to use its resources in the best ways possible. By that I mean that we might be helping those in our communities whom our culture classifies as poor, but in doing so, failing to reach those who were desperately poor around the world. For, those whom our culture classifies as poor often still drive nice cars and live quite comfortably, while those in other countries who are poor often have nothing. The monthly income of our poor often far exceeds the yearly income of the poor around the world. The poor in our country often get three meals a day; the poor around the world try to survive on three meals a week. So, are we making the best use of our resources by giving away food to our neighbors, without instilling biblical principles about finances and money at the same time?
Effective missionaries in small southern towns will have hearts of compassion for the poor, and at the same time an awareness of the issues and struggles of the poor. Overcoming the poverty factor will mean teaching about a biblical work-ethic, confronting an entitlement mentality, as well as a great deal of love and compassion and generosity on our parts.
May 22, 2011
I can still remember how I felt when I first heard that believers in other countries were coming as missionaries to the States. My first thought: That means that in some way we as Christians in the States are failing to reach our own culture. My second thought: Why don’t I live like a missionary every day? Does being a missionary mean I must live in some foreign land, or is it possible to be a missionary right at home? And then I thought about the mindset of those who were coming to the States to serve as missionaries, whose sole purpose is to tell people about Jesus. They have left their homes, families, careers, moved to this strange country and learned our difficult language. For them, each trip to Food Lion is an opportunity to share the gospel, each walk in the neighborhood is a chance to meet neighbors, each breakfast at Bojangles is a cross-cultural experience. In short, the insight that such missionaries were living in my neck of the woods was a stinging revelation that filled me with a measure of guilt. Such news showed me that in some way other I had failed, believers and churches across the country had failed, to reach my own neighbors and communities and cities. For if we had effectively lived as missionaries in our own culture then Christians from other lands would not have needed to come and help us reach our communities. Yes, I was both challenged and reminded to begin living as a missionary right here and now. I want it never to be said that someone else had to finish the job that I could not or would not do, or that I so consistently failed to share the gospel that someone from another country had to come and do it in my place.
So in the next couple of days I plan on sharing a couple insights about living as a missionary in one’s local community. Since I live in a small, southern town, some of these may be peculiar to my own unique setting. What follows will be a series of posts related to this topic.
- Eat where the locals eat
In Louisburg, this will mean eating breakfast biscuits at Bojangles and at the Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. There is a lot of interaction that goes on at the biscuit joints in the mornings. In the Fall (during hunting season), men sip coffee and chat about their hunting adventures as their hunting dogs wait outside in the pick-up trucks. Throughout the year, the biscuit/breakfast joints are THE place to eat, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, socialize, and get to know the locals. I guess on some mission fields you might eat fermented cabbage or raw duck, and on others you might eat greasy bacon-biscuits.
May 10, 2011
That’s right, we became official members of the Louisburg Moose lodge. There are several reasons why we did this. First, the Moose lodge has a pool. As Moose members we will have access to a swimming pool for the summer. This pool is just a few miles from our house, so I’m sure there will be many summer evenings spent there. Also, I think it will be good to get Melody, our 4 1/2 month old daughter, used to swimming.
But beyond merely having access to swimming, there are more important benefits to becoming a Moose member. We will hopefully have opportunities to meet new people and develop relationships with them. Having lived in Louisburg for a couple of years now, I can tell you that being a Moose member is THE thing to do here in town. Many, many families join. As members we will not only get to meet these families, but also hang out with them, visit together at the pool, develop relationships, and share the gospel. Yes, I know that there is a good amount of drinking that goes on at the lodge, but I think I need to go to where the locals “hang out,” rather than waiting for them to come to me.
March 9, 2011
I’m always amazed when I hear another believer’s testimony — God reaches each of us in such different ways. Sometimes it is through a sermon, through a friend, or simply through reading God’s word. For me it was through the influence of being brought up in a loving Christian home, and then in middle school when I began reading God’s word on my own. Often it seems that God ends up using the most simple, forgettable encounters to draw others to himself. How ironic, we often think we need extensive training courses, programs and campaigns, expensive, snappy tools and strategies, only to be surprised when God uses our simple obedience. I love it when someone shares their testimony and says that God used a short Bible verse, a child-like conversation, even a simple gesture, to get their attention.
As I think about these things, I was struck by a paragraph in C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. He writes of a friend named Barfield: “The gospel first broke on Barfield in the form of a dictated list of Parables Peculiar to St. Matthew” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 113). And Lewis goes on by describing how friends all around him were doing the unthinkable — they were converting to Christianity! Perhaps this is a glimpse of God’s sense of humor, to see how these Oxford elites were being impacted by such simple things as lists of Gospel parables.
This causes me to ask myself: Do I really believe that God is the one who saves others, or without realizing it do I feel like it is up to me. Yes, I must be faithful with the opportunities He gives me. But I must also remember that the opportunities he brings me are often as simple as speaking the truth or sharing a verse or two.
This may be completely unrelated, but today I had an unusual “opportunity” (I’m not even sure I would call it that). I was at the gas station this morning at about 7:30 AM. As I sat there pumping gas, incredulous at how high the price was and trying to keep warm, I noticed a grey BMW parked nearby. As I finished pumping and took my receipt a woman got out of the BMW and approached me. “Good morning, I have some literature for you, are you interested?” she asked. “Sure” I said, “Let’s see what you’ve got.” She got out a magazine and was about to hand it to me when I noticed the words “Watchtower” at the top. Without even thinking, I raised both hands in the air as if being held at gun point and said, “Oh no! Not interested.” She was quite surprised. I explained that I was a believer in the Jesus of the New Testament, and that therefore she and I had nothing in common. She folded up her magazine and went on her way.
Perhaps I was too blunt. Perhaps I was not blunt enough. But in all likelihood that will be the only time that I see the lady. And maybe, just maybe, God in his mysterious ways, the same God who can use something as simple as a list of parables from the Gospel of Matthew, can use my “Godliness mixed with fear” to plant a seed of doubt in her mind.
February 22, 2011
A friend on Facebook writes,
Just in case there was any doubt……this is not the day and age where going door to door selling cleaning products, vacuum cleaners, pictures, books, meat or socks to women who are home alone is the acceptable thing to do. If I wanted those items, I feel pretty confident I know where to find them. Please take your unmarked vehicles and whatever you are selling, elsewhere. Thanks!
In addition to the items listed by my friend, I can think of how her thoughts might carry implications for some of our tactics as believers, can’t you?
January 10, 2011
I’m reading Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind with a slight mental red flag. Noll argues for the absolute importance of developing the Christian mind, and of the rightful place of the Christian scholar. He bemoans the fact that there are no influential Christian Universities in America, no great Christian thinkers interacting with culture. I have not reached the end of the book, so I’m not sure where Noll is going yet, but the big question in my mind is, “What is Noll’s goal?” For what purpose does he want the Christian mind developed? Let’s say his vision and goal are accomplished and there is a real, viable “Christian intellect” in America. So what? How is that going to help serve the Lord and fulfill the great commission? Does he simply want there to be a respected Christian think-tank that can give the John’s Hopkins and Harvards a run for their money? Does he merely want to prove “We Christians can think too!”?
In other words, my biggest question as I read this book is how will this fulfill Jesus’ command to go into all the world and make disciples? Noll states,
People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the Gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated to the enemy (Noll, 26).
Did you catch that? Should my goal be to spend years of leisure so that I can sharpen my mind and enlarge my powers of thinking? To me, that sounds very self-serving. I’m over half-way through Noll’s book and I am not getting a sense yet that this cultivation of the mind is aimed at service. Rather, he seems to be arguing for the right and importance of the intellectual to sit withdrawn in an ivory tower, contemplating the complexities of the world from the safe haven of the university, and all at a leisurely pace.
Now yes, the mind by all means needs cultivation. Christians should be thinkers and have their scholars. And yes, this process takes time; the mind isn’t cultivated overnight! But what would it be like if the greatest Christian minds made it their goal to disciple the blossoming church in China, to move to Africa and suffer alongside the churches, to train a new generation in South America? Honestly, the only way I personally can justify the years I am currently spending in school is that I plan to go out to the front lines and use whatever resources God has given me to help bring his light to the nations.
The Apostle Paul is a perfect example of what I’m talking about: one of the most brilliant minds the Kingdom has ever known, using it to plant churches; spending most of his time, not in leisure, but in prison; reflecting, not on the complexities of the Roman empire and culture and art, but on how to reach Spain with the Gospel.
C. S. Lewis provides another example: One of our generations most brilliant Christian thinkers said the thing he feared in his move to Cambridge was that he grow “too comfortable and over-ripe” (The Letters of C. S. Lewis, To Edward A. Allen). And at one point he also said he feared he was growing too comfortable and complacent, so he took to the radio and the speaking circuit, using the mind he had cultivated to serve God and others.
So yes, cultivate your mind, but for the purpose of service. More specifically as you cultivate your mind ask, “How will I use my intellect to reach the nations?”
Well, it seems I spoke too soon. Noll concludes that effective evangelical thought will produce worship for the Redeemer (241), and that “profound trust in the Bible as pointing us to the Savior and for orienting our entire existence to the service of God” is essential to Christianity (244). What he aims for is “conversion along with consideration of lifelong spiritual development and trust in the Bible along with critical use of wisdom” (245). One of his closing remarks is a commendation for the way evangelicalism fueled missions (251).