They are three words that changed the course of history. In the summer of 1940, Adolf Hitler was desperate to quickly subdue Britain and so be free to turn on his main goal – Russia. The British army had only just escaped at Dunkirk – and without its equipment. England was a sitting duck for invasion, and all Germany needed was control of the skies. Since the Luftwaffe greatly outnumbered the Royal Air Force in planes and especially in experienced pilots, this was not expected to take long.
Instead, it lasted nearly four months and was a decisive British victory. England lived to fight another day. Germany invaded Russia anyhow, and in the end could not sustain the war on two fronts. History looks back on the Battle of Britain as a key turning point. So how was the battle won?
Britain had a secret weapon – radar. It showed them when, where, and in what force the Luftwaffe raids were coming, well before they arrived. Efficient communications systems enabled the RAF planes to be in place and ready for them.
But here’s the remarkable thing: German scientists had also developed radar. What’s more, theirs was more advanced than the rudimentary British system! But here’s the critical difference: The British system was in the field, and the German system was still being perfected in the lab. Sir Robert Watson-Watt, leader of the British research team, used “Second Best Tomorrow” as a motto against perfectionism. Better a basic system in the field tomorrow than the perfect system next year (or the year after).
I wonder whether we could draw on that motto in evangelism and church planting. It’s tempting to plant the perfect church in our imagination. Or to hold off evangelism while we work out the perfect approach that no-one could possibly reject. Such great ministries are developing wonderfully on paper, right when they’re needed in the field! (In fact, that’s where they are far more likely to be truly perfected.)
The simplest of all Jesus’ parables is about two sons who were sent by their father to work in the field. One refused, but then changed his mind and went. His brother had all the right words in response, but never got around to going. Which one, Jesus asked, got it done?
How do we know when we’re doing our mission well? What’s our rule of thumb for “good evangelism” over “bad evangelism”? If we judge our mission by how it’s received we are navigating by very unreliable stars. If many people respond positively to a message we can easily think it was great evangelism, and if we offend many – indeed any – we can assume it was our mistake.
In fact, sometimes we can search and search – and search and search – for the perfect way to put the message of the gospel so that it will be guaranteed to succeed. We want a 100% success rate. But that’s not what we see in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Mark 4). Jesus points out there will be a whole range of responses to the same message. (If you do the maths, that farmer only needs a 2% success rate to make a profit.)
There is no perfect technique that will win over everyone we’re called to. If that’s our standard, we’re expecting to be better evangelists that Jesus himself. People were drawn wonderfully to him and had their lives transformed. Well, some of them were drawn. Others, like the rich young ruler, walked away.
And worse, the things they said about Him! People called him demon-possessed, evil, insane. People called Paul a fool, a babbler, a try-hard, a traitor. Do we think we should have a better strike rate than them? No, Jesus said if some will reject him, some will reject us. (And he said when they reject us they’re really rejecting Him and the Father.)
So which voices, which feedback do we tune into to evaluate our effectiveness in mission? The danger is that if we hold back the message until we find a way to offend no-one, the only one we’ll offend is Jesus himself. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory.” (Mark 8)
So how do we know when we’re doing well? Given the range of receptive soils, sowing liberally would be a good strategy. Enthusiastic receptivity is not necessarily a tick (think rocky soil). And vehement rejection is not necessarily a cross – well not in that sense! But if people are receiving and rejecting us for the same reasons that they received or rejected Jesus, perhaps we’re around the mark? And in line for the ultimate feedback “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
It’s happening everywhere. In lounge rooms and cafes, along beaches and bush trails and in boardrooms. On any given day it may be unspectacular, but friends, it’s changing the world. Disciples are making disciples.
Intentional discipleship requires a framework of some sort. Regularity of meeting, for a start (every week rather than every now and then). From there, an agreement to focus the conversation, rather than merely chatting, moves the practice from something good towards something great. Disciple-making that’s, well, disciplined, is hopefully not too radical an idea. And time is of the essence. God is at work in real time, so every hour matters.
It doesn’t need to be overly-regimented, but a basic framework will make an enormous difference. In the past I’ve used four conversations around Loving God, Loving Neighbours, Loving Fellow-Believers, and Receiving God’s Love. They act as headers to explore all of Scripture and all Christian practices. But there’s a hugely important fifth topic that focuses the energy of the other conversations with laser intensity. It’s the conversation of Vocational Discernment: What is God preparing you to do?
Without a tailored conversation around each individual disciple’s unique shaping, gifting and calling by God, discipleship mentoring so often loses intensity in the following ways:
1. It gets lost climbing the asymptotic mountain of theoretical perfection. The trainee is measured up against a long list of ideals and spends huge energy trying to make 1% improvements towards an imagined ‘ideal Christian’ that God does not expect of any of us individually.
2. It wastes time and energy shaping the trainee into a body part they’re not made to be – often the part that the mentor is.
3. It gives a false impression of non-urgency where the trainee has their whole life to plod towards general ‘fitness’, rather than training for an event (or events) that God has entered you for in his great Games.
Ask the question What do you sense God is uniquely shaping you for and calling you to do? (And how, with whom, when, and where?) Keep coming back to it as a discipline. And hold onto your hat…
One of the most challenging tasks of sacred agents is contextualization. (Oh the irony, I’ve used a 19-letter word and a 17-letter word already.) Contextualization is the challenge of translating the great news of God’s Kingdom, which reaches across all time, places and cultures, into a specific time, place and culture so that it can be understood. If you’ve ever looked at someone, scratched your head, and thought “how can I possibly put this wonderful hope in a way that you’ll be able to grasp?” then you’ve wrestled with contextualization. It’s tricky.
And of all of the trickiness, there’s the danger that it makes us tricky. It’s good for us to keep our finger on the pulse of societal trends and communication methods. In our dealing with the world we are to be as wise as serpents. But we’re also meant to be as innocent as doves.
If we follow too closely the PR approach to mission, never wanting to offend or repel anyone, loudly proclaiming the “upside” of following Jesus and fudging on the cost, we can end up being quite unlike Jesus in our efforts to represent him. There is a wonderful straightforwardness to Jesus, speaking the truth lovingly but also directly and clearly, and being up-front about the cost of discipleship.
(Selling Christianity as a lifestyle choice by highlighting how its benefits far outweighs its costs has problems in itself in leading to consumer Christianity where people “select” Jesus for his usefulness rather than submit and entrust themselves to him, but let’s discuss that later.)
Another form of trickiness comes when we make reconciliation to God an over-complicated process. When a person is 1,000 miles from God’s kingdom, sometimes we try to influence them towards a place just 990 miles from God. Nudge them a little bit closer, and feel that we’ve done some mission. But a person 1,000 miles from God is actually only one step away (hallelujah!), and we see many such people in the Gospels coming to Jesus and being wonderfully transformed. Do we inch people along the garden path sometimes instead of inviting them to come right on in?
What might it mean for us to be clear and straightforward as agents of the Kingdom? More wise and yet less sophisticated? Might it not be both truer to the gospel and refreshing and appealing to many in our time and culture?
Have you ever attempted the Coke-Can Challenge? The idea is to hold a full can of Coke (or indeed any other beverage that is willing to sponsor this blog) out in front of you at full arm’s length, for as long as possible. The can doesn’t weigh much, but (if you’re like me) you’ll find you’re in agony after a couple of minutes. But if it’s close to your body, you could carry it all day.
Surely the challenge of God’s mission is like that. The further you are from people, the harder and more painful it is. The closer you are to the people you’re sent to, the easier it is to connect meaningfully. Missionaries who live and move among a people group learn so much more about how to speak to them, and gain far more credibility to be heard. It’s Missiology 101. We see it in Christ himself: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” (John 1:14, The Message)
Our family has learned what a powerful and natural thing local witness is. Moving to West Beach church has meant moving home and changing school across town, but I think we would have done it even if called just down the road to Parkside, simply because of the difference proximity makes to mission.
But it’s not just about where we live. What does it mean to really draw near not just to residential neighbours but also to our neighbours at our work, school or club? Our message that “the Kingdom of God is near” has an existential truth in that we as agents of the Kingdom embody it. Who can think God is distant when one of His ‘angels’ is giving them a visitation? We do the gospel when we practice hospitality to invite people into our space. And we do the gospel when, like Jesus, we are not ashamed to eat and drink in the space of those far from God. Far until we arrive!
When church is over here and life is over there, mission too easily ends up being neither here nor there. It’s too hard, we think. But is the coke can really too heavy? Or just too distant?
There are deep, strong, and many connections between evangelism and hospitality – far more than I can go into here. One of the most poignant images of the gospel is the embrace of the prodigal son by the Father. God’s deep longing for prodigals to be reconciled to Him means always looking out and always ready to welcome in.
If you want to come to my house you can probably find the front door and the doorbell, but the experience for you is vastly different if the light is on and my kids are peeping out the front windows eager for your arrival. In the same way, at my home church we feel we have some renovations to do. There are four doors at the front of our buildings, and none of them obviously presents as the entrance. If you really want to come, you can definitely figure it out, but it’s something short of hospitality.
But enough about buildings, what about the actual church? Does yours have a clear and warm point of entry? Do those without church experience get strong signals saying “Welcome! Start here”? Or do they get the feeling that this church is for regulars, not irregulars?
One church that welcomes well is Rostrevor Baptist. Banners all along their street frontage make quite clear that that church is geared up to help beginners, and the Alpha Course is the place to start. We can learn from them. Is there somewhere obvious on your church’s website where beginners can click? Is there a ministry clearly aimed at ushering people from curiosity to membership?
Many churches seem to have ministries that usher people from the Outer Hebrides to the Inner Hebrides (hostility to openness), but not ministries to welcome people ashore and settle them on the mainland. We move people from Pluto to Neptune and call it mission, but do we really want Martians here on Earth?
So our church is looking at a new entrance. But even more urgently, we’re looking at a weekly Sunday breakfast for enquirers where people can ask anything, begin just where they are, and discover all it means to belong in God’s family. Mission isn’t just running down the road, mission is bringing the prodigal home!