Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Church Planting "Jugulars"

Its been a great week so far. Today I spoke to classes at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary about church planting. My friend and fellow partner in crime Dr. Jack Allen actually allowed his students to be exposed to me. I always enjoy the opportunity to be back in the classroom and interact with students.

Dr. Allen asked me to speak primarily on two things:

1. What I would reccomend potential planters do prior to their arrival in the field.
2. A few of the top mistakes I see guys making in the field early on.

What follows is a bit of fodder from those discussions.

Things to do before you get to the field to plant.

1. Pray, Pray, Pray!!!! Yeah I know, we talk about this issue so much already. Trouble is, we talk about it more than we do it, and there could be no more crucial time devoted to prayer than the time just before deploying to plant a church. If church planting is anywhere near as effective as Peter Wagner says it is, Satan must hate it more than almost anything else we do. From experience I can testify that the enemy will come after you. He will come after your family. And in the face of such warfare, prayer is the only hope you have. Pray alone. Pray with your family. Ask 300-500 folks to pray with you (these are Jack's preferred numbers) and get ready!

2. Confirm all Partners IN WRITING! Let me preface with this statement: No one I know at the North American Mission Board, our state convention, or our association would intentionally deceive a church planter about the amount of support he will receive. Unfortunately, the chief liability of multiple autonomous partners is that often, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. In this environment, a single, innocent clerical error could mean funding cuts in the $1000s of dollars. In the event of such an error, written commitments will substantiate all that is needed for supporting partners to get their act together.

3. Research the Focus Area Before you go. Ed Stetzer suggests (and he is right)that your first day in the field, you should know as much about the history, geography, culture, and spiritual state of the area as those who have resided there for years. Such knowledge, if gained in advance of your deployment, will conserve valuable time that once you arrive, should be spent cultivating, rather than studying, your area.

4. Participate in Assessment, and if Possible, Multiple Assessments. Different church planting ministries will, by virtue of their own values, look for different things. Being assessed at least twice will give you a much more accurate picture of the "total you."

5. Secure a coach. A subscription to coachnet costs only $75 annually, and the return on investment (provided you are coached by someone who knows what they are doing, and has your best interests at heart) is immeasurable! Coaches draw out the best in you, help you "refocus" in times of confusion and discouragement, and help you work through unanticipated issues.

In a couple of days, I'll post on the top problems/mistakes I see guys making early in their church planting efforts.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sex Scandals: Why Vietnam Got it Right

In the United States, its hip to be a whore! If you think that statement too strong, perhaps you simply aren't paying attention.

Over the past few years, sex has been so trivialized and perverted in the west that it hardly bears resemblance any longer to the intimate gift between husband and wife God intended it to be. Reality shows, movies, magazines and even the "female pornography" disguised as a romance novel have made an indelible mark on sexuality in the US. The most tangible example of this fact is seen anytime an American celebrity is caught in a compromising position. The one-night-stands and sex tapes shown on entertainment TV barely elicit a yawn. Maybe this is why what has happened recently in Vietnam has our western culture surprised . . .even shocked, that someone is actually facing consequences for their behavior.

BBC News reports that Vietnamese television star Hoang Thuy Linh's highly popular Vang Anh's Diaries has been cancelled by Vietnam Television due to a sex tape featuring the 19-year old that made its way to the internet. "This is the most scandalous and controversial thing that has ever happened in Vietnam's virtual world," says journalist Hung Nguyen.

Her TV show featured the adult Linh portraying Vang Anh, a Vietnamese student whose character has become highly popular among young teens. The average viewer is 14, and according to the BCC article, the show's cancellation has ignited a firestorm on the web. Does she deserve to be punished for her behavior? Is sympathy currently her greatest need? Is there a necesity to apologize for what she has done?

For the most part, the responses from around the world have been, well, rather western:

Seoul resident Jenny Howard laments that such a "big deal" has been made of this incident by Vietname television, and suggests that there are much greater threats to a civilized society than two young people having sex. "We see suicide bombers killing hundreds of people on TV, insugents killing and mainming hostages and yet a bit of two people enjoying themselves and we are in fear of society."

Further and harsher criticism came from Brazilian resident James Smith, who claimed that the problem is cultural oppression: "This is typical of repressive societies. The first thing they try to control is your sex life. If you permit them to tell you when, how and with whom to have sex, controlling everything else is easy. This is why religions and other despotic regimes are anti-sex. The world will be better off when we are rid of both."

Talk about killing a mouse with a Sherman tank!

For one thing, these is a huge difference between bring punished by legal authorities for breaking the law, and having your television show cancelled because you don't have the good sense to keep your most private moments private. There are currently no reports of Linh being prosecuted or "oppressed" in the sense that any of her freedoms are being taken away.

In the western world where drunk-driving hollywood stars are merely slapped on the proverbial wrist, it is apparently very hard to draw a distinction between the penal code and tacit societal approval. Nevertheless, lets set the record straight here: Linh lost her tv show, and subsequently, her huge cultural influence, because of risque behavior. No one is jailing her for life or strapping her to a gurney, which makes talk of "oppression" seem just a bit like overkill.

I'm guessing the reason the west has reacted so to this issue is because on the other side of the pond, Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton and a host of others have only grown in influence over American society. Bare it all in Vietnam, lose your show. Bare it all in America, gain a reality show!

To be sure, I sincerely feel for this young lady, whose life has now been irreversibly affected by what she no doubt admits was a stupid move. Additionally, I find it strange that no one has made any pejorative statements about Linh's boyfriend, who reportedly filmed the "event." Although we can't be sure how the video made its way to the web, I'm betting the boyfriend, in a search for fame via his bedding of a famous actress, had something to do with it.

At the same time, those who are flooding the web with their input into this whole fiasco have one thing right: there are societal consequences both ways. In the US, the consequences of such behavior are greater fame (more people recognize Anna Nicole Smith than Abraham Lincoln) and subsequently, greater influence over a culture that has, surprisingly, become ever-more sexualized. Sexual activity has increased exponentially as a result, with some children as young as 9 and 10 enjoying their "friends with benefits." Middle-school aged girls are now required in some areas to receive an HPV vaccine, assuming that their sexual activity before marriage is a foregone conlcusion. Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister and Company and others sensationalize sexuality in a desparate effort to market their clothing to teens and pre-teens.

Meanwhile in Vietnam, a nation decided not to promote such behavior. The result was that a promising, but naive young lady lost her television show.

Which would you choose?

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Missional Conversation"

"Emerging," "Incarnational," "Missional." A Google Search on any of these terms will reveal them to be the most discussed and hotly debated topics within the church today. But how on earth do these terms, and their much-debated definitions, help the average follower of Jesus who is genuinely seeking to live his faith in his own context?

This past May, I was asked to be part of a dialogue to answer this very question. The implications of our answer were as close to home as one of the churches we have planted here in Maryland. Metanoia Church in Ellicott City, and their pastor, Adam Feldman, hosted this dialogue, which is now available as a podcast. Joining us in this discussion were Ken Sorrell of the International Mission Board's Middle America and Carribean Region, and David Phillips.

Following this discussion was another, very helpful dialogue on contextualizing the Gospel in culture. You can find all the podcasts here.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Missionaries to the Rich and Powerful

I was privileged, not only to be raised in a church environment, but also to be raised in a “missionary” church environment. As such, my history included numerous opportunities to hear from missionaries who were serving Jesus all over the world. This included “short term” volunteers who sought to take the Gospel to different parts of the globe.

Such an environment allowed me to hear all sorts of testimonials from people in my own church, particularly those who sought to minister in the so-called “third world.” While hearing their moving stories certainly proved motivational, I was also disturbed by the limited perspective these missionaries brought back with them. For some, the most substantive thing they could say was “I had no idea how blessed I was until I saw how these poor people live.” Now that I live among a people who, from an economic perspective, are at the opposite end of that spectrum, I know why such statements bothered me so.

I was raised in a lower-middle class, blue collar home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in rural South Carolina. Given that background, I sometimes wonder why on earth God has placed me in my current field of service. Where I live and serve, blue collar jobs account for less than 13% of the work force. Of that work force, more than 80% hold a college degree, and 31% hold a Master’s degree or higher. Even in the current “sluggish” housing market, the average price of a single family home here is well in excess of $450,000, but such prices are not intimidating to a population whose average per capita income exceeds $90,000 annually.

Adding to this demographic picture is the fact that this year, my county was named the third most affluent county in North America. Similarly, the state of Maryland was recognized as the most affluent of all 50 states, boasting more millionaires than any other state in the union.

In addition, the people who live here are as powerful as they are wealthy. God has allowed my wife and I to cross paths with high-level defense workers, congressmen and senators, Fortune 500 CEOs and business-owning entrepreneurs. In short, our mission field is largely made up of some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world . . .

. . .people who are just as sick with sin as anyone living in the “third world!”

The issue in working with people of this stature is the way they are often stereotyped by the church. Regrettably, most Christians, rather than following a Biblical pattern of observing people, will adopt a cultural pattern. Such a pattern can be seen in the various ways our two primary political parties view the “rich.” One party believes that the rich are rich because they took advantage of those less fortunate, and the poor are poor because they are mistreated and not afforded the same opportunities as their more wealthy counterparts. Another political party believes that the poor are so because they aren’t bright enough to “cut it,” and the wealthy by contrast are so because they study hard and work hard. Thus, they deserve all the good fortune that comes their way.

Of course, the fallacy in both of these stereotypes is that in both, people are judged according to their possessions. The fact is that wealthy people are first and foremost . . .well, people! In that sense, their problems and struggles, while not nearly as obvious, are just as present. The “poor” are neither dumb nor righteous, and the “rich” are neither smart nor greedy, merely as a result of what they possess. Likewise, the “rich” are not satisfied in their riches, nor are the “poor” kept from satisfaction because of their lack.

Yet this stereotype is the reason we are so often quick to judge our celebrity culture. Take Britney Spears for example. The “train wreck” that her life has become is analyzed and lamented, not only by Hollywood, but also by judgmental Christians who think to themselves “what a spoiled-rotten girl! With all her fame and fortune, she still can’t get her act together!” Such statements assume that one’s money and fame will somehow make one’s life less of a mess, and those who make such statements should read afresh Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes!

This is a lesson I have learned from experience as I seek to reach the people of my area with the Gospel. When my family and I first moved here nearly three years ago, I thought to myself, “I’m a southern, blue-collar redneck. How on earth am I going to effectively minister to wealthy, powerful, white-collar people in the northeast?” My presumption of course, was that because they possessed more money and power than I would likely ever enjoy, that I couldn’t help them. Obviously, I had forgotten about Phillip.

In Acts 8, Phillip is providentially brought in contact with an Ethiopian eunuch. “Providentially” is a key term here, because the likelihood of this kind of encounter between a middle-class Jew and a wealthy and powerful Ethiopian official happening serendipitously was slim to none! Nevertheless, what Phillip discovered was that while this man was powerful, wealthy, famous and influential, he was also very lost! In commenting on this passage, Greg Laurie describes this encounter as “a very empty man [the Ethiopian] who met a very satisfied one [Phillip].” Ironic isn’t it? It was the “poor” man who was satisfied.

Yet the Scriptures tell us that this is exactly the way we should view our lost friends, regardless of the income bracket to which they belong. I appreciate and admire my friends in other parts of the world who minister to the “least of these.” But let’s not forget that from an eschatological standpoint, there is no difference between “rich” and “poor.” More than eighty percent of the population in my area has no relationship to Jesus Christ. They may drive a Mercedes, live in a “McMansion” and embody the epitome of the “American Dream,” but inside, their condition is identical to that of the unregenerate of the visible church in Laodicea. They are “miserable, poor, blind and naked.”

Dan McMillan was one of those people. At the top of the venerable McMillan Publishing company, he enjoyed all the benefits that came with wealth, fame and power. Still, something was missing that made all the accoutrements of his life seem worthless. Thankfully, a young church planter of “less than average” means named David Draper, brought McMillan to understand his need for Jesus Christ. His conversion led to a weekly breakfast and Bible study where McMillan sought to reach his friends in the publishing industry with the Gospel.

Not long before his death, McMillan allowed folks from the North American Mission Board to interview him about his conversion. Toward the end of the interview, this wealthy and powerful man made a desperate plea to his Christian brothers and sisters: “The church is always focusing on the poor and disenfranchised, and that’s good. They certainly need it. But what about me? Why did it take so long for someone to get to me?”

Dan McMillan is with Jesus today, not because of his money, but rather because someone loved him enough to share Solomon’s wisdom that riches, while nice, are ultimately “vanity” and “meaninglessness” if not accompanied with a fear of God that leads to keeping His commandments. I am convinced that God wants to populate heaven with people like this. But if we are to play any significant part in getting them there, our focus needs to shift from the back pocket to the soul.