Wednesday, March 27

A shift in our missionary role

My wife and I arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador as missionaries in December of 1987. In those early missionary days we labored at the center of where "the action" was taking place. We were in high demand by the churches, associations, and Ecuador Baptist Convention and all their related institutions and programs. A lot of our time was spent attending all the different meetings of both our own denominational work, as well as the events and programs of other evangelical denominations. I served on various denominational boards, committees, and task forces. Our advice and opinions were respected and listened to. We were constantly called upon to preach, teach, administer, counsel, train, and coordinate ministries, institutions, and strategy. Each of us wore multiple ministerial hats. All of us were responsible for carrying out an assortment of assignments, often in areas we were not particularly gifted in, but "someone" had to fill those shoes, so we took on these tasks as well. Our phone rang incessantly. Rare were the days when we had an entire evening to ourselves without someone in our home, someone dropping by to chat, or the phone ringing day and night.

Over the years, all of the above has continued to decrease to, what is today, a mere trickle of what it was 20 years ago. Has the work diminished? Not at all. In fact far more is happening now on multiple levels than anyone could have ever imagined. But our personal influence and role has diminished from what it once was. Probably to be fair, a better description would be our influence and role has changed. While we are certainly still loved and respected by our Ecuadorian brethren, the things we used to do--as "principal actors on stage"--are now being done by those we poured ourselves into years ago. The very men/women/youth we taught, counseled, trained, and encouraged have taken our place. They are the ones now that others call upon, serve in "important" capacities, speak, teach, train, travel, lead, preach, etc.

One of the hardest missions lessons is the one John the Baptist must have also struggled with: "He must increase; but I must decrease." Someone once defined missionary success as working oneself out of a job.

But actually saying these words is a lot easier than living with the consequences of someone else now doing and filling the roles one used to have. We too want to be needed, sought after, consulted, and called upon. In fact, instead of the phone ringing in the evenings with yet another crisis for us to solve, we now can sit most nights quietly reading a book without interruption.

As I reflect back over the years of all the assignments, responsibilities, tasks, and roles we have played; ALL, without exception, are today in the hands of nationals who are doing an excellent job.

So what are we still doing here if we have successfully worked ourselves out of all our jobs?

The task is far from completed. With only 7-10% of the population in Ecuador followers of Christ, much remains to see the Great Commission fulfilled in our region of the world.

What I sense is most needed is not more missionaries continuing to come from other parts of the world to Ecuador, but rather a shift in role existing missionaries play.

We must begin to see ourselves more in the apostolic role of encouragers, enablers, equippers, trainers, motivators, connectors, and coordinators who are principally engaged in mobilizing God's people into the ripe harvest fields--not as fun as front line stuff, but necessary!

While there will always be room for the first generation apostolic church planter who goes into unreached/under-reached territory to proclaim the Gospel, make disciples, and leave a NT ekklesia; in the later stages of a ripe harvest field (like Ecuador) we best serve the King by shifting our focus to helping the church see what remains to be done, how to accomplish the task, provide tools and training, and mobilize to lead hundreds of laborers to bring in the harvest God is giving.

Another way of understanding this role change is to explain it this way: I can feel great about spending 30-40 hours a week directly engaged in proclaiming the Gospel, making disciples, baptizing 15-20 and hopefully planting 1-2 churches in a year's time...or, I can spend that same time modeling, training, mobilizing several hundred others to do the same things, and at the end of the year see the Kingdom grow by dozens of churches and hundreds of baptisms and scores of new disciples also equipped to going out and making even more disciples.

In the first role we are the primary actors on stage. Everyone sees us, needs us, and looks to us for direction. In the second we are behind the scenes and the ones "seen" are those we are coaching. The difference in the way we understand our apostolic/missionary role is between planting a church, and being an instrument in the Spirit's hands for dozens of churches planted all over the region.

What do you think? As usual, your thoughts and observations are welcome.

Monday, March 25

How traditions often trump Jesus' teachings

One of my favorite Vance Havner quotes says, "The church is so subnormal that if it ever got back to the New Testament normal it would seem to people to be abnormal." So true! And yet this 'subnormal church' continues to sail along with few daring to ask the difficult question, why.

Why do we do what we do? How have we managed to stray so far from New Testament practice and teaching, yet think we are being Biblical in our way of doing things?

Years ago I discovered a series of free downloadable audio teachings entitled The Tradition of the Elders by Beresford Job at This series of teachings brought to light many of the perplexing questions that have haunted me over the years. The series is in six parts* (TR1-TR6) and takes a while to listen to, but it is a most enlightening trip through early church history showing how we got from 'there' to where we are today.

It was in this series that I was first seriously introduced to the writings of the early church fathers. I now possess a large quantity of these writings and have spent many a fascinating hour pouring over their words. For me these early church fathers are the key to understanding how we managed in such a short amount of time to shift from the practices and teachings of Christ and the apostles into what we have today.

Take for example, Ignatius the second bishop of Antioch. Here is a direct quote from his epistle to the church in Smyrna written only a few years after John the Apostle died...
See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. --The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Chap. VIII:22b-25.
The whole concept that the pastor/bishop/elder is God's chosen servant to lead the church, and only the pastor can do certain holy functions does not originate with the teachings of Christ, nor the Apostles, but with bishops (pastors) like Ignatius. It is Ignatius who says that only bishops can baptize and officiate the Lord's Supper, not Jesus or the Apostles. Yet the practice that prevails today is that of Ignatius. His words have been elevated to those of Holy Scripture!

It is Ignatius who opines that bishops/pastors/elders are in separate spiritual classes. His order is clearly...

-God the Father
-followed by Jesus the Son
-then the local bishop
-the presbytery
-the deacons
-the common lay person (you and me)

How does this reconcile with Jesus' own teaching to his disciples in Matthew 20?
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. (26) "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, (27) and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; (28) just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
To be fair, the Canon of Scripture as we have it today, was not in their possession at the time these and similar words were penned. I don't doubt the good intentions these early church fathers had in writing these kinds of things for the churches of their day. These were difficult days dealing with heresy, persecution, and things we cannot even imagine. There was no Bible to guide them like we have today. What is amazing to me, though, is that these aberrations were not corrected once they did have the complete Canon of Scripture in hand!

Few are aware that many of our church traditions, practices, and commonly accepted teachings we have today do not come from Scripture. Instead, they originate with things taught by the early church fathers, like Ignatius. These traditions have been passed down to us over the centuries. Any one questioning the traditions is suspect. But shouldn't it be the other way around?  Shouldn't we judge our traditions and practices by what we find in Scripture?

What are your thoughts?

*If you don't have time to listen to the entire series you might consider starting by fast-forwarding to TR3 and TR4 to get at the heart of the series.

Friday, March 22


Safe Hat is an acrostic for:

Sad (or stressed)


The "Safe Hat" is a tool we use in house church gatherings to facilitate people sharing what is going on in their lives.  We believe God is constantly reaching, teaching, leading, and pointing things out to us. We all need some encouragement in sharing these these experiences in order to stimulate one another to "love and good deeds." (Heb. 10:24-25)

How it works is we "pass the hat" from person to person. While passing the Safe Hat around we sing a short chorus that says,
God has something to say to you
God has something to say
Listen, listen, pay close attention
God has something to say.
God speaks to us in many different kinds of ways. We just need to "listen, listen, and pay close attention" to be able to hear what He is trying to say to us.

We keep singing the chorus until someone places the cap on their head (like Mark is doing above!) and then immediately stop singing to hear how God is working in that person's life.

The person with the cap on his head is now SAFE and can freely share what is on their heart by choosing one of the safe hat words to begin...

I am sad...
I am angry...
I am frustrated...
I am excited about... etc.

After the person is through sharing, he/she can choose one of three responses from those listening:

1) I just wanted you to hear what God is doing in my life
2) I would really like for you to pray with me about this
3) I need you to "listen to God" first before saying anything

The group then will share appropriate Scripture verses/passages, words of encouragement, hugs, or any number of other appropriate responses back to the person who has just shared.

Most of the time #2 is what is asked for and we spend the needed time praying for the situation.

This tool has worked very well in our gatherings and has proven to be a good way to get people to open up and share. It has also helped unite us in more in the common bond we have in Christ Jesus.

Any questions? Feel free to share/ask in the comments below.

Sunday, March 10

At a "Cross Roads" over "Proof of Heaven"

Two books. Both take the soul out of the body and go places not been to before--the afterlife. One is fiction, the other a true story. In both narratives, the main character goes into a coma and emerges from the experience transformed by what is discovered in the spiritual world that lies beyond. I enjoyed both immensely, and hope you read both books!

There is something within us that draws us to the mysterious, the unknown. I love writers who are able to transport us into other realms where the profound questions of the meaning of life are explored. I relish anything that challenges me to think outside-the-box of my own small world. Two such books, listened to back-to-back, are the audio versions of William Paul Young's second novel Cross Roads and Eben Alexander's personal journey into the afterlife, Proof of Heaven.  The former is Young's long awaited follow-up to his 18-million bestselling novel, "The Shack." Alexander's book is a detailed recounting of what happened to him both physically and spiritually while in a coma for seven days.

Both narratives fall into the category of exploring the mysterious afterlife. Neither author questions whether or not life exists after death; but rather, seek to describe what the afterlife is like. Young, utilizing a fictional story, has greater freedom to explore this "other world" without having to justify every word, scene, and sentence. Alexander's recounting is tougher because what he describes of his experience of heaven is limited by having to share only what he personally saw, heard, felt, and experienced without additions. Add to these limitations, his "proof of heaven" is not distinctly a Christian Heaven, which can be a little disconcerting for someone like myself.

Needless to say, both are thought-provoking and explore the timeless questions about life, where we come from, where we are going, what happens after we die, is God real, and does God really love us individually and personally. I think both succeed in assuring us that Heaven is indeed real, and the afterlife is more real than life as we know it now.

Young and Alexander's writing engage the reader on multiple levels:
  • theological--what does the Bible actually say about these things?
  • physical--understanding the brain and our physical world what happens on a scientific level
  • emotional--the power of our emotions and beliefs that directly affect the lives and choices we make in this life
  • spiritual--the soul, the consciousness, our spirits and how all that "fits" inside our body
These four aspects intertwine themselves around two fascinating stories. Both narratives alternate back and forth between the heavenly regions and things as they are back here on earth. They explore choices made here on earth and how these affect what is going on in the "real world" beyond.  If the reader already believes in the afterlife, there is little doubt these two books will only strengthen that hope that lives within, as well as challenge those who might be skeptical.

While I was intrigued by Alexander’s recounting of what happened while he was "dead" for seven days, his experience of heaven was not distinctly Biblical. He even uses different terminology for God, heaven, angels, etc. While there is little doubt Alexander believes in God, what he describes is what one would expect from someone who is not familiar with the Biblical passages and language used in Scripture. He describes in detail meeting God (“the Core”) and learned many things about the universe, including how much we are all loved intimately by God, regardless of our past sins. If you have read Rob Bell's "Love Wins" several of the more controversial concepts he relates in his own exploration of heaven and hell are revisited in these two books.

Alexander didn’t see Jesus but describes in detail the afterlife as being a place of great beauty and peace. There is even an entire chapter entitled, "REAL" where he attempts to describe in human language things incomprehensible.  He likens the difficulty of relating his indescribable experience as if a chimpanze becomes human for one day and then reverts back to being a chimpanze and then trying to express to his fellow chipanzes what he experienced as a human. The language, words, concepts, dimensions are just not there to be able to express the unexressable. I couldn't help but think on Paul's difficulty as he too attempted to describe his own beyond this physical world experience...
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows. And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-- was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.  (2Co 12:2-4)
I have often wondered if Paul's hearing inexpressible things "that a man is not permitted to tell" was meant only for him because of his pride issues (see the verses immediately following 2-4). But it also might be that we are not permitted to tell because we have not yet been given the vocabulary and understanding of what is beyond. To try and tell it as these authors have done falls short of the whole truth. Thus, any attempts to describe the indescribable might distort or cloud what really awaits us over on the other side.  A partial truth can be more dangerous that an outright lie.  Alexander repeatedly refers to his inability to put into language that which he saw, heard, felt, and experienced. In "Cross Roads" Paul Young is not restricted by language and thus is able to offer fascinating dialogues through the interactions of the main character with the beings he encounters in the other world. If you enjoyed the dialogues of Mack with the Godhead in "The Shack" you'll love "Cross Roads" in that, here too, Young has his main character posing the difficult questions of life, trying to make sense of a senseless world, and doing so with the only One who has the answers.

Anyway, be as it may be, these two books are very thought-provoking and are guaranteed to shake you up and rekindle interest (hope) in the next world that awaits us all.

Thursday, March 7

5 Common Great Commission Myths

5 Common Great Commission Myths
By Joey Shaw

Matthew 28:18-20, And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The passage above is commonly known as “The Great Commission”...Many people teach on this passage… most of us don’t regularly obey it. Below are five of the more common myths about the Great Commission that lead us to miss out on disciple making.

1. The myth of accidental discipleship. Many Christians think, consciously or unconsciously, that we can make disciples without changing anything in our daily lives; that as we go about doing our own thing, disciples will be almost accidentally made. This comes across in phrases like, “I will just live my daily life and if someone wants to ask about the Gospel, I will share it”, or, “I just ‘do life’ with others and pray that they will start becoming interested in Jesus”. Many Christians are willing to talk about or declare the Gospel, but only if opportunities pleasantly come they’re way. They are waiting for the perfect moment to drop from the sky upon them to actually verbalize the Gospel or start demonstrating the Gospel. The myth here is that merely “doing life” with others is an straight path to making disciples...The bottom line here is that the Great Commission will be completed only by intentional action and resoluteness. Jesus commands us today to set our eyes on the goal of disciple making and pursue that goal with stubborn focus. This means, that unless you pray and plan to make disciples, you won’t do it!

2. Crossing cultures is a step beyond the general mandate. This myth is that only select missionaries are called to cross cultures in order to make disciples. The rest of us should only focus on people like us, in our culture. The problem with this myth is that the actual Great Commission commands otherwise. Incredibly, Jesus gave a commandment to his mostly Jewish audience to go to a mostly Gentile people and make disciples! Jesus commanded his Jewish followers to go to all people groups (all ethnos, the Greek word for “nations”). In other words, the Great Commission itself is a mandate to cross cultures!

3. Jesus wants converts. The most interesting thing about the Great Commission is that it does not command us to make converts of Christianity. Instead, we are to make disciples of Jesus. The difference between convert making and disciple making is crucial. Converts change religions. Disciples change masters. Converts follow a system. Disciples follow a Person. Converts build Christendom. Disciples build the Kingdom of God. Converts embrace rituals. Disciples embrace a way of life. Converts love the command to “baptize them” in the Great Commission, but that is all. Disciples baptize others but only in context of “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you”. Converts love conversion. Disciples love transformation. Are you making converts or are you making disciples?

4. When I am ready and able, I will start making disciples. This is the ultimate delay tactic. Have you ever told yourself that you aren’t capable for some reason – lack of training, lack of experience, lack of skill, etc. – of making and multiplying disciples like Jesus? Have you ever thought of someone who is making and multiplying disciples as a super Christian? Have you ever said or prayed something like this, “We just ask you God to send out to the nations the best among us, yes, Lord, send out our marines!” If so, then you have fallen to believe the myth that making and multiplying disciples is for “elite Christians”.

5. Making disciples is great advice. Cultural Christianity loves this myth. Cultural Christians love to sing the praise of disciple makers while themselves simultaneously avoiding, through the most crafty cop-outs, actually engaging in obedience to the Great Commission. In other words, when it comes down to it, many view the Great Commission as merely great advice.

The fact is, though, that the Great Commission is a commandment coupled with the commissioning of Jesus. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)...In other words, the measure of one’s love for Jesus is one’s obedience to Jesus! You cannot love Jesus and not obey cannot disregard the Great Commission and claim to love Jesus. The command is simple, “go and make disciples”. Ask yourself, “Am I currently making disciples of others?” If not, why not ask yourself, “Will I today commit myself to beginning the process of making disciples of Jesus?”

Joey Shaw is the Minister of International Mission at The Austin Stone Community Church. He is currently writing a book on evangelical Christian thought on Islam.

Monday, March 4

What would you do differently if you knew you only had three more years of ministry?

Jesus accomplished the Father's will and did so in three years of ministry. Can we claim the same?

Unconsciously, most of us think we have a life time in which to carry out the Lord's work. But what if we were guaranteed to having only three more years of ministry? What would become our priority? What would we do differently?

I don't know about you, but for me, making disciples that make disciples would be my priority.

Another related thought that continues to haunt me is that if just ONE CHURCH of 200 members were to commit to making ONE disciple per year, and were to faithfully carry out that task--with those discipled each year doing the same--by the time of our retirement in 15 years, theoretically THE ENTIRE WORLD would be followers of Christ.

Yet we can't seem to even win/disciple ONE per year!

The problem is we THINK we are doing what Christ commanded, but aren't. To illustrate, just ask for a simple show of hands next Sunday of those who in the past five years have won a single person to Christ and made discipling them a priority. If there are 5 out of 200 (including the full-time paid professional church leaders) who have done so, I would be shocked!

The fact is, we are NOT making disciples. We are doing a lot of good 'churchy-type' activities, but winning the lost, and making disciples is not amongst the top priorities of most churches out there.

What does a church look like that indeed has evangelism/discipleship, church planting, and missions as a priority?

I visited one a few weeks ago. There were about 20 adults present (10% of the typical church mentioned above), along with children running in and out of the room. The church 'service' was anything but orderly, with everyone talking at once about the previous week's experiences of:

* lost family and friends they are praying for
* people being discipled and related questions they came up during the time together
* how and where to purchase follow-up materials for people won that week
* logistics for an evangelism blitz the coming weekend
* funny stories that took place in the new house church being planted across town
* prayer for a couple that were going out that week to visit a family
* needing more money from the collected offerings to buy Bibles for new believers
* several testimonies of God's opening doors for them to 'preach the Gospel'
* a missions report about what God is doing in another Latin American country

I am not exaggerating. The entire church 'service' was what I have described. There were a few songs sandwiched in, along with a short teaching from the Gospel of Matthew, but the rest was everyone pumped-up about their excitement of being on-mission with God.

This is a church that is truly missional in every sense of the word. They aren't looking to attract people to their tiny garage church, they are a vibrant church on mission with God, taking the church out to where the world is dying in its sin. I don't know about you, but that is the kind of church I want to belong to!

It would seem most of us (including me) are greatly distracted by all the programs, buildings, financial needs, meetings, and paraphernalia of Christendom that we have lost sight of the simple mandate of Christ to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.

What do you think? What would you do if you knew you only had three more years of ministry?