Friday, March 30, 2007

Faith-Based Missions

I ran into a friend at Starbucks this morning. When I asked about his family, he told me about the work that his son and daughter-in-law are doing in Africa with an independent mission board. They are enjoying their ministry with local church leaders, but they are having to raise their own support.

Remember the "old days" when we used to proclaim proudly, "Our missionaries don't have to go out and raise their own support because we have a unified program of missions giving"? My, how times have changed. You can still support missionaries through a unified program (such as Global Missions of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), but have you noticed how many "freelance" missionaries there are out there these days? Some of these folks are part of established organizations but a number have set up their own ministries that are incorporated, have their own boards of directors, and have carved out their own missions niche.

I don't necessarily see this as a negative thing. In fact, my wife and I support three missionary couples through monthly contributions--one couple is with a national organization that works with International students, one is with a campus evangelism ministry, another works overseas to reach out to youth and young adults. We also contribute to an NGO that helps with agricultural missions overseas.

The most interesting development is the individual or couple who have launched their own missions organization. They have perceived a need, have a real passion for fulfill that need, and invite others to join them in the effort.

Why has this happened? I can think of some reasons and you may come up with some of your own. First, there are many needs in the world and the individual may have come to the conclusion that no one else is doing this and God has called me to help meet this need. Second, there is an increasing distrust of large missions-sending agencies. Third, people have a tendency to support an individual or a need with which they personally identify. Fourth, we have a new generation that is very entrepreneurial; they are ready and willing to take the initiative to get the job done, and they want as few people as possible looking over their shoulders!

In some ways this is not so different from the missionary societies founded in the US and England during the nineteenth century. These started outside the churches, they were funded primarily by individuals, and the initial missionaries were often motivated lay people. In fact, the opportunities for women to do ministry were greater through these organizations than in the traditional church settings.

Of course, this presents some practical problems. As an individual how many of these folks can I support? For pastors, this raises the question, How many of these folks should have access to our congregation to ask for support? There are also issues of accountability and doctrinal fidelity.

Here again, I am not saying that this movement should be squelched, but how do we deal with it wisely, as good stewards of God's blessings?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Conversion--Event or Process?

Some of you may remember the explanation of sanctification that we learned in Sunday School, Training Union, etc.--"We have been saved, we are being saved, we will be saved." Since sanctification seems to be another way of saying "converted" or "saved," this might be a helpful way to look at the previous topic from another perspective. Salvation is not just an isolated event in time, but an on-going process.

In a very real sense, all who have named the name of Christ are still in the process of being saved. No matter how one first entered onto that path, the work has started, and the work of becoming more like Christ goes on from day to day. It is not finished yet; I would say that it will not be accomplished until "the day of Christ Jesus"--either His return or our leaving this life.

So if we are in the process of being saved, what contributes to that process? First, worship--both private and corporate. As we come close to God and God comes close to us, we gain not only new understanding, but a better understanding of grace as well.

Second, love for our neighbor. What's this got to do with salvation? In one of John's epistles, we find the comment (my translation), "If you can't love the brother you can see, how will people know that you love the God that you can't see." Love for neighbor--in word and deed--is a sign that we are somehow different than we were and are becoming more than we were. Indeed, we might say that love itself is a process--a day to day walk--rather than an event.

What are some other signs that salvation is at work in your life?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Conversion

I suppose that the apostle Paul's conversion experience has become the template for many Christians--a rabid persecutor of Christians, he had a life-changing experience with the risen Christ on the road to Damasacus, and subsequently became the foremost promoter of the Gospel he had once reviled.

I think we assume several things about Paul's experience, and I may unpack some of those in the future, but holding up his experience as a standard for all conversions is the one I want to look at in this posting.

I had the opportunity to lead a deacons' retreat for one of our churches last Friday night. The material I was using is very good (Bill Hybels' Walk Across the Room) and, like all good evangelism training resources, explains how to tell your faith story with humility, simplicity, clarity, and brevity. The pattern goes something like this--What was your life like before you knew Christ? How did you come to the point of submitting to His leadership in your life? What was your life like after that decision? Of course, this pattern is drawn from the experience of Paul--one he recounts several times in the Book of Acts.

I asked the group Friday night this question, "How many of you grew up in the church and made a profession of faith at a young age (you can define "young" however you wish). About 80 percent of the hands went up. I was not surprised. I shared my own testimony something like this:

"I grew up in the church and can't remember a time when I did not know that there was a God who loved me. I made a public profession of faith in Christ at age 12. When I was a sophomore in college, I was going through some difficult times. I got down on my knees beside my bed one night and prayed, 'God, I don't know what you want me to do with my life, but there must be something better than what I am doing. I submit myself to you.' Well, things didn't get miracously better, but I began to perceive God's presence in my life, a presence that has stayed with me through thirty years of ministry, a tour in Vietnam, the raising of three children, and the loss of a grandchild to cancer."

Now, this may raise theological questions for some, but I felt validated when one of the members of the group Friday night came up and said, "I am glad that you shared your experience. I thought I was the only one who had come to Christ in that way.

Perhaps it is time to realize that God works with each of us in God's own way. For some, it will be the nurturing process of church and family. For others, it will be a "Damascus Road" experience. Who are we to tell God and the Spirit how to work? If we were more comfortable with the way that God has worked in our lives, perhaps we would be more comfortable in telling others about God.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The House of the Lord


After a meeting today at the University of the South in Sewanee, I took a few minutes to walk into the magnificent All Saints Chapel on campus and enjoy the beauty of that sacred space. It may seem odd that I enjoy such beautiful architecture. I am a pretty practical Baptist who knows that God is present everywhere, but there are several reasons that being in such a building is a blessing to my soul.


First of all, a place of worship like All Saints is a testimony to the faith of men and women who loved God enough to do their best to honor God in constructing the edifice. The chapel itself (like all great places of worship) took years to complete, surely testing the patience and faith of many supporters. The stone walls and stained glass windows are a material testimony to their commitment.


Another reason standing in such a place blesses me is the stillness of the building in the midst of a busy, bustling campus. It reminds me of the presence of God with us even in the busy-ness of life.
Third, when I was in seminary I developed an interest in church architecture as an expression of theology. A building like All Saints embodies a number of aspects of Christian theology, including the celebration of the sacraments and the importance of public worship. Theology can be manifested not only in people and actions but in buildings as well.
Could the money have been used elsewhere to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, give water to the thirsty? Maybe. But how many people have been inspired by such a building to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, give water to the thirsty? Only God knows.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Southern Baptist Who "Gets It"

Since I no longer consider myself a Southern Baptist, you may be surprised that I would say this, but there are some Southern Baptists who really "get it"--that is, they are able to read the signs of the times and move to adapt organizations that will respond effectively to the needs of churches.

One such case is Mike Day, (executive?) director of missions for the Mid-South Baptist Association in Memphis. At a symposium in Jackson, Tennessee, last month, Day made this statement: "[Southern Baptists] will proclaim [local church] autonomy as sacred and necessary, yet we behave sometimes like we require the approval of others or we behave as if we have the right to approve. It's an implied hierarchy, for sure. We won't ever admit that it exists."

Now, we could get into a long discussion about how this "hierarchy" operates in Baptist life today, but my immediate response was appreciation for Day's vision. He was calling for a renewed commitment to the work of the local church and a revised role for Baptist associations as supporters of churches in doing ministry. He also advocated a regional approach to Baptist associations clustered around urban centers that would eventually lead to the demise of state Baptist conventions. He called for a "new paradigm that must be church-driven, priority-based, resource-focused, strategically managed and regionally oriented."

Fellowship Baptists will resonant with some of his observations. From the beginning, CBF has encouraged partnering with other entities (not "reinventing the wheel"), resourcing churches, and avoiding the ownership of institutions. However, I think we are still struggling with the state and regional organizational component. We don't want to reproduce the old approach, but we haven't really found the best way to do it.

Anyway, I appreciate Day's comments. They are the remarks of someone whose organization is taking a realistic, hard look at how entities beyond the local church can help churches discover and fulfill their God-given mission. It is a task that we must all take seriously.