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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Between 2% and Porterhouse

My team had an interesting discussion over the last couple of days. This isn't as remarkable as it might sound, but while most people spend Christmas talking about football and shopping, our team talks about ecclesiology. Who says we aren't committed to our jobs? (And no, there is no truth to the rumor that we deliberately discussed "work" issues in an attempt to justify paying for a turkey dinner out of our "Office Expense" accounts.)

I've posted before about my frustrations with communication and word definitions. It seems like every attempt we make at defining or describing what we believe (and why) is lost as the words we use are co-opted by others who use those same words to put a new face on traditionalisms. We've even confused ourselves as we struggle to work through the implications of what we say we're about. Our conversation this week, for example, began with this question: When one of our friends becomes a believer, can we really disciple him/her in their existing social structure?

Conventional missionaries today have begun to adopt the terms "relational," "incarnational," and "missional," but their thought on evangelism and discipleship is usually something like this: Missionaries share the gospel, nationals hear it, some reject it, others respond. Those who respond are then grouped together to form the beginnings of a "church." Another school proposes to switch the order to "group them and win them," in order to disciple people within community.

Our collective experience has taught us that although this sort of "winning/grouping" approach to church planting sounds like a good strategy, it actually does quite a bit to hinder the "indigenousness" of the foundation that we lay. Individual believers are separated from their natural social groups and placed into these artificial, "Christian" ones for the sake of support and encouragement. But that separation greatly reduces the new believer's influence in the relationships he/she had, and because the bulk of his/her spiritual transformation takes place in private (church), it has little positive impact on the community. It doesn't take long for these new Christians to be so far removed from their own culture that they need to be trained to interact with their lost friends.

So we, despite using the same words, have tried to do things a little differently. Our team's idea has always been to disciple people from wherever they are spiritually to maturity in Christ, without removing them from their existing social environment. Our discussion this week began with a current situation. A friend has recently shown some interest in Jesus. We can see him opening up to us and to the faith we're always talking about. We pray that he will soon be saved. Naturally, this friend lives a lifestyle that does not honor God. He is addicted to drugs and he regularly participates in "trance parties" (Raves put on by "Shaman" DJs who use techno music to entrance partygoers in a pagan spiritual frenzy that sometimes last days and days). Let's say he becomes a believer- can we leave him in that environment and expect him to grow in his faith and be an effecting witness to the people around him?

Again, most people would say no. They would argue that this friend needs to be removed from the dangerous situation so that he can overcome the sin that has bound him, and grow in his faith. I disagree (You expected as much).

I say that the role of the missionary (and yes, this is different from what most would say,) is to serve as spiritual "life-support" for the new believer as they struggle to work out their salvation within their own cultural context. This might mean that we meet with a national believer to disciple and encourage them, but we never "invite them to church." Instead, we pray for God to move among the new believer's circle of friends. We instruct him/her in righteousness, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin. We encourage him/her to share their faith, and pray for the day when God moves among his/her sphere of influence to plant a church there.

But nobody does it this way. For most of us, this approach is too messy, too limited, and it takes too long. What if they never feel convicted about certain sins? What if they never know another believer? What if, ten years down the road, they're still struggling with basic holiness and remedial theology. How long can a believer survive on only spiritual milk?

It seems to me that our discomfort with Christians who are struggling to make sense of their faith has led us to impose a behavioral conformity that ignores the personal tension that salvation brings. When drug addicts and homosexuals get saved, we require that they immediately stop being those things, and start acting "Christianly." From the outside, it would seem that we interpret the word "repentance" to mean that upon salvation, a person must suddenly exchange public sins for private ones. You cannot be a drug-using, foul-mouthed, homosexual Christian, but an over-eating, gossip who struggles with lust just has "a few things to work on." Is Christianity only about (openly) sinning less?

Leaving a drug addict in a circle of drug addicted friends might seem like a bad idea, but it would allow the addict to see how his newfound faith applies to his real life. It would also allow his friends to see his personal transformation first-hand and allow them to actually participate in it. The power of salvation is most evident when it contrasts with the stark reality of the situation from which we are saved. The soil in which a seed takes root is sufficient for that new plant.

Continuing the thoughts of my previous post: what we need is not more Christians trying to "reach" the "people of the world," but more "people of the world" trying to work out what it means for them to be a Christian.


Alan Knox said...


You have hit on a problem with Christianity in the west in general. We want to see people saved to a "Christian" lifestyle. I think this is one reason that most evangelicals do not like emerging types. Those within emerging churches are still living in their culture, not removing themselves to a Christian sub-culture.

I recognize that I am living in a Christian sub-culture, and I've written a couple of posts about how I'm trying to change that.

I don't see where Phillip told the Ethiopian eunich to change anything. Phillip sent the eunich back to his old lifestyle with no one but the Holy Spirit to direct his life.

I'm glad to see that there are people who still trust the Holy Spirit to do his work of sanctification.


Debbie said...

Terrific post with some very good points for me to think about.

Debbie said...

stepchild: I was studying my Sunday School lesson this afternoon which dealt with this very thing. It's written by James MacDonald who said "Changing the environment does not automatically change the person. A perfect environment does not lead to a perfect person. Adam and Eve had a pretty good environment in Eden. God Almighty Himself said it was perfect(Gen.1:31) and yet Adam and Eve sinned! So environment does not control what I become."

Strider said...

You are swinging at it- I hope you get a hit. If you have read my blog and understand anything about me then you already know I 'approve' of what you are talking about. No need to thank me:)
But there is another element that you have not talked about. Perhaps you are all about this but I need to ask about extraction evangelism. Now I know that this is what you are trying to avoid but as Paul asked the Galations, 'having begun in the Spirit will you now continue in the flesh?'
If you use traditional one on one ev and discipleship to convict, convince, and collect the target then how will you go on to form a natural community of faith? You won't. So, my observation is this: If you want a house church then you need a household. If you want a vibrant community of faith then you need to find a way to impact a community in need. My advice? Don't do one on one anything. If you want a community to come to faith work with a community. I could rant a long time about why we don't do this- even though this is exclusively what Paul did.
Bottom line is I like where you are headed. But if you don't take into account the community aspect of sharing the Gospel then you wont get to community living the Gospel.

stepchild said...

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your honesty as you recognize the Christian subculture you find yourself in. One thing I'm convinced of is that the circles we call "Christian" are often more dangerous than the "secular" ones in that their sin is hidden and sometimes masked as righteousness.

Who ever would have thought that a blog post of mine would correspond with a Sunday School lesson? I will look up James MacDonald to see if I can hear more of his thoughts on this. The "environmental sanctification" idea is pretty strong in evangelical circles, so I'm interested in exploring other thoughts about it. Thanks for your comments.

I agree with you about the importance of people coming to faith in their existing communities. Unfortunately, we've not seen entire households responding to the good news, despite our efforts to "evangelize" people in groups. In my post, I tried to reflect our current situation as we work through our strategy and wait (eagerly, with anticipation!) for these not-yet-churches to be born around these individuals.

Thanks for the encouragement, and for the bit of wisdom.

stepchild said...

For those of you following the discussion over at Kettering Fellowship, I'd like to try to clear up a couple of things:
1) I live in Western Europe, not Afghanistan.
2) My interest in exploring different methodologies and missiologies is not based in any sort of frustration for lack of "results" or "converts." I'm just trying to work through what is Biblical and what makes sense to me.
3) I'm not sure what I wrote that would give anyone the idea that I don't think salvation brings a radical personal change. In Christ, we are made into new people who are no longer slaves to sin and can no longer continue to pursue things of this world.

My point in the post was that taking people out of their social structures in order to evangelize/disciple them does more harm than we often recognize.

ewinwe said...

nice nail-hitting. we recently saw something coincidentally interesting (we initially thought "odd") at a local church.

a local community of believers (did I say "church" above? my bad) has an outreach for alcohol- and drug-addicted people. they try to wean these folks off of their addictions, get them involved in other activities, give them a place to come to, people to talk to, something else to do... it's a great idea and it is working.

the same local community of believers has a restaurant in their facility that has a bar in it. no, not a coffee bar, a real bar ... mixed drinks and everything. they sponsor parties, they have bands come and play, their new years eve celebration will most likely be a swinging time ... and alcohol will be served. so is this group of believers actually trying to help people with drinking problems on the one hand, and holding out the temptation to drink with the other? hmmmmm
i'll not try to answer that. i've made my own mind up already, but as it was quite close to the conundrum you brought up, i thought i would mention it.

your comments on taking people out of their social structure is intriguing. as you may guess from the info above, the social aspect of drinking where we live is quite prevalent (a lot of the locals either grow grapes for wine production or make their own wine). if i were to tell someone that drinking is wrong, and making wine is 'wronger', i would make myself look foolish and alienate myself further from the community (i say "further", because by virtue of the fact that i was not born here, i'm already an alien). so that is not one of the biggies on my list of "not-to-dos".

i'll have to agree with alan on this one - the Holy Spirit is pretty much the one in control ... something some folks back home seem to forget too conveniently from time to time.

GuyMuse said...

How I wish I could have been part of your team meeting in discussing this very relevant issue.

There is much I'd like to comment about, but will second Strider's thought that community is crucial. New born believers without community of other believers will generally flounder and likely be swallowed up by their previous world.

One of the house churches we relate to work with street kids, gangs, drug addicts, etc. One might question their Christianity if one judges upon appearances. Their dress, hairstyle, music preferences are quite different from my own. When they become Christians they don't separate themselves from their world. What they have is a strong community of like-minded believes to help them live out their faith in the "real world." Many believers from outside their environment criticize them for being too worldly, but I think they have understood better than most, exactly what it means to be "in the world, but not part of the world."

If there is no community of other believers, why not "church" with them yourselves? To me, this is what discipleship is all about. Walking with the new believers in a community until they can walk on their own to make other disciples.

Perry McCall said...

I was gong to e-mail you today an invite you to join our conversation at the Kettering Fellowship. I apologize for any of the comments that offended you(if they did) and thanks for your clarifications that you have already given. I chose to include your post for discussion because I have been reading your blog and find you to be very serious and insightful.

I agree with you that we have often (and still are) guilty of trying to "southern christianize" converts on the mission field as well as in the states!! I also agree with you about not removing people from their social network. My question concerns the issue of personal lifestyle. I understand completely the idea of not telling a new convert to abandon his friends. I also understand not trying to get a person to leave a sinful lifestyle before they have even become a follower of Christ. but would you encourage this person to continue to go to the "trance parties"? I think your answer would be yes based upon your post.

Again, I ask these questions because I consider you someone who is worthy of engagement. I apologize for any miscommunication on that front.

Strider said...

I turned on the TV the other day and there was this new 'christian' channel which was showing something called 'Bible Man'. I have never been more horrified. The theme to that particular show was hanging out with your 'old' friends. It was wrong. Bible Man told the little girl that bad company corrupts good morals. If she was going to be a follower of Jesus she needed to hang with her new christian friends. Gosh I wish I was making this up. Then one of Bible Man's helpers got a call from an old friend of his and he went and met with the guy. Don't worry, Bible Man's other helper caught him and he repented of meeting with his old friend. Aughhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!
Anyway, I guess I have to apologize for my earlier comment and caution Stepchild about his post. You are wrong Stepchild. Bible Man says that you will never create a good Christian bubble if keep talking like you are talking.
Sorry, I can't keep the sarcasm up anymore. Let us all repent of the Christian Bubble. Let us all stop acting as if being a christian is the weakest most fragile thing. Let us stop fearing the world and fearing what others think. Our Lord never feared others and he not only went into the world to minister to others- He enjoyed them. He developed real friendships with them. He really loved them. Let us do the same. We are not weak. We are not fragile. We can and must remain in the world and far from it consuming us let us be a light to it.
end of rant.

Perry McCall said...

Bibleman is scary. However, how do we deal with the biblical admonition to not be deceived because bad company ruins good morals? The reference I am assuming was to 1Cor. 15.33. The context is Paul's proclaiming the resurrection as well the practical implications of the reality of the resurrection. The "Bibleman" truly aside, how do we deal with this issue as it relates to this post?

stepchild said...

I'm not too familiar with Bibleman. Do you happen to know if he's on the IMB Board of Trustees?

Just hearing about him makes my guts twinge with conviction.


Asking me to comment on a scenario like the one you mention sounds like a trap. Are you in any way affiliated with the Bibleman franchise?

Seriously, I think the situation you describe happens all the time in churches everywhere. They have tons of food at their pot-lucks, they "share" intimate third-hand details about other peoples' situations in their prayer meetings, and they allow pretty girls to attend. Church isn't safe for anyone who struggles with self-control!

Great thoughts you share, thanks. I guess in my post I was thinking through what you call "churching" with these people who don't fit into any existing Christian fellowship. I love what you say (your last paragraph) about it being discipleship, and I agree. I guess what I'm questioning is this line:

"New born believers without community of other believers will generally flounder and likely be swallowed up by their previous world."

stepchild said...

I promise that I was not in the least bit offended! Quite the opposite, I was excite to find someone else discussing these matters. I wanted to clear up my thoughts so that the discussion at Kettering Fellowship wouldn't be about something I wasn't trying to say. Thanks for linking to the post.

You ask whether I'd encourage this new believer to continue going to trance parties. I don't think I would, but neither would I discourage it.

To me, it seems that when a person gets saved, he is faced with the challenge of making sense of his old life now that he is a new person. There are some things that a new believer cannot continue to do, some that he must start doing, and many, many things that he may continue doing, but now with a different motivation and purpose.

Since I'm the only other believer this guy knows, he'd probably not think twice about going to these parties unless the Holy Spirit told him otherwise.

Thanks for your comment, and for this discussion!

Watchman said...


Again, as I mentioned in your last post, I think we convert people and then expect them to become moral, not full of faith. Can drug-guy and rave-guy walk by faith? Do we have evidence that Rahab quit being a ho, though she was saved out of Jericho?

Debbie said...

Strider: I think you make a very good point about the supposed fragility of Christians and the Christian bubble. We still live in this world, we work in this world. We each have the HS in us along with Phil. 1:6 in which God has promised to never stop the work he is doing in us until heaven. We seem to skip over this verse and take the verses be not conformed to this world completely out of context.

cafeaddict said...

as usual, stepchild, i agree almost wholeheartedly with what you are saying. key word, almost. listen to this real life situation and tell me what you think...

i have a friend who works with troubled youth in western europe. she lives in a ghetto and throughout a 3 year ministry has seen about 15 youths come to know god. her biggest struggle is their environment. they are constantly surrounded by drugs, sex, violence and insane parents. their emotional maturity level makes it very difficult for them to fight against the most basic influences in their lives--their parents and their friends. they don't have the social, mental, or emotional tools that functional teenagers have to make wise decisions. as a result, only 1 of the 15 has a stable walk with god.

how would you counsel my friend? i mean honestly. i don't have the answers for her. i just know that the environment that these kids are living in is literally killing them. must we consider maturity levels when we ask ourselves if someone can remain in their pre-christ world? what exceptions are valid ones to the your belief in leaving new christians in their natural habitat?

stepchild said...

At least you "almost agree" with me. Most people "almost understand" me...

I have no idea what your friend should do. I really hope I don't sound like someone who thinks he has all the answers. I think I've only got two or three answers, actually. But the situation you share speaks perfectly to what I was getting at in this post.

Firstly, I think that any child (or adult, for that matter) who is in danger, physically or otherwise, should be taken out of that dangerous situation, regardless of his/her spiritual state. If a kid is being abused, or if a friend is abusing drugs, I believe we have an obligation to intervene, whether they are believers or not.

I sympathize with your friend's situation. Ministry to troubled inner-city youth can be very difficult. That said, the question you pose is a great real-life example of a missionary serving as spiritual life-support until the Father brings about real change to that community.

What I'm questioning here is the notion that this environment (albeit terrible and ungodly) makes it impossible for these kids to grow to maturity in their faith. Sure it will take longer. Yes, these kids will continue to be exposed to dangerous sin and temptation. But I would encourage your friend to continue discipling this group of youth right where they are. Maybe the 15 kids will struggle for a long time, but in the end they, together with their community, will have seen how the good news is relevant to their situation, and has power over the evils in their everyday lives. I believe that the gospel has the power to grow life in the same soil God chose to create that life.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the idea is ridiculous. Maybe I'm "almost right."

ewinwe said...


um yeah...i'm secretly working on bibleman scripts right now!!! i've got a great one where bibleman catches one of his helpers on the internet reading a 'blog ... what a predicament!

bibleman is very very scary. that whole mask thingy really worries me ... and what is with the weaponry???

sigh ... i miss davey and goliath

(serious note - perish the thought of me working for tommy nelson. my boss ain't in nashville...)

Perry McCall said...

Thanks so much for joining us at the KF. I have been responding to a funeral and helping sub at our Christian Academy so I haven't been able to respond yet. We are definitely in the same notebook. I think maybe on the front and back of the same page. I am praying for your ministry.