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In recent years there has been a lot of talk about church growth in the evangelical world. Everyone wants to know how to make their church grow and there is no shortage of suggestions for how to do it. What is the key to making your church grow? Is it using a cell church model? house church model? more user-friendly sermons? better music? more skits? candles? bigger parking lot? more exciting youth programs? powerpoint? more lay leadership? something else?Protestant missionaries have been in Thailand for over 180 years yet the number of Christians in the country is still less than 1%. So, the question has been asked, when so much time, money, and effort has been put into evangelization, how come the church has grown so slowly? Again, many suggestions have been put forth. Perhaps we haven’t contextualized the Gospel well enough. Or our evangelism has been too Western. Or we have used a poor model of church. Or there is a lack of indigenous worship music. Or we haven’t been letting the Spirit lead. Or church buildings don’t look Thai enough. Or we haven’t emphasized house churches. Or we haven’t found the right redemptive analogy. Or whatever.
In planting a new church, how should the missionary provide for the continuing care of the congregation after he is gone? Or, to put it another way, how do you know when you are “done” planting a church? In not a small number of cases, missionaries in Thailand have established churches with a modus operandi something like this: evangelize and disciple until there is a sufficient number of Christian believers such that there are people to lead various elements of Sunday worship service and there are more or less sufficient finances to rent a building and call a full-time Bible school educated Thai pastor to lead the church. If these elements are mostly in place, then the church is considered planted and the missionary feels free to move on to a new location. Often there are some kind of appointed or elected church leaders which may or may not resemble Biblical elders. In many cases, I have seen a church committee which makes decisions about finances and church activities substituted for the Biblical model of elders, namely mature Christian men who govern and shepherd the congregation, bearing spiritual responsibility for the souls of the people. If a missionary gets the number of believers up to level where the church won’t dissolve, and then calls a native pastor (whom a small church often times can barely pay), is this really the best model for establishing healthy Biblical churches?
One of the most common and accepted roles for Westerners in Thailand is that of English teacher. Since there is such high demand for English teaching, it is common for missionaries to teach English as a way to get to know people and to share the Gospel, either inside or outside of the classroom. But is this a good idea? Is it a good use of a missionary's time? Is using English teaching as outreach honest or is the missionary being deceptive in teaching English when his real goal is to share the Gospel?
My friend Rich, a fellow missionary, recently did a post titled "Is Using English Teaching as Outreach a Deception?". Rich does a good job of laying out the various perspectives on this question and there is some interesting discussion in the comment section. I also included some comments there regarding my experience and convictions regarding this subject. For those who have used (or thought about using) English teaching as evangelism or have wondered about it, Rich's post and the subsequent comments give some good food for thought in framing the discussion.
We've been in Singapore for about two weeks now and are well into our Orientation Course (OC) at OMF's International Headquarters. We are here together with other new OMF missionaries (and their children) from a variety of countries - USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, Philipines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, etc. There are about 40 adults and 16 kids. Fortunately, there are some kind grandmas from UK and Australia are helping with childcare so that Sun and I can attend the lectures and not have to watch Joshua all the time.
The content of the lectures have covered medical issues (insurance, malaria, dengue fever, where to get medical advice and care on the field), finances (how OMF financial system works), the vision and mission of OMF International, times of Bible study, prayer, and worship, and meetings with the International Directors and Intl Medical Advisor. Joshua was able to get his six month shots right here at OMF HQ so we didn't have to go look for some place around town or wait.
Sun and I went down to Bangkok last week to shop for some baby items that we couldn't get up country and everything seemed "business as usual" in the capital but as I have been reading the Thai newspapers recently, there is talk about internal dissention in the current interim administration and maybe more bombings or another coop. Please be in prayer with us for the Thai nation and people. Below is a brief update from the our mission's field director here in Thailand.
"OMF Thailand is presently monitoring the unrest in Thailand. These struggles are political, and not against foreigners, or religious based. There are rumors of another coup, and the army has stepped up it's presence in Bangkok and other major cities across the nation. OMFer's are staying away from large group gatherings, and government/military offices and bases. Please pray for God's daily protection and also for His peace. Even though most Western countries are advising their citizens not to travel to Thailand at this time, OMF leadership believes that it is still safe to come and to be here."
On of the most difficult aspects of being on the mission field is that we are half a world away (literally) from family. If you fly from Thailand to New Hampshire, USA you can't get any further apart without starting to go back around the globe again.When our family made the choice to go half way across the world to make known the truth and grace of Christ, we knew that separation from family was one of the costs. It is a cost we are willing to live with because the proclamation of Christ to those who do not know him is extremely important. We want other families in spiritually dark parts of the world to have the same hope and comfort of Christ that we do. However, despite the importance of the task and our commitment to it, it doesn't make the distance and separation any easier. We praise God for technologies like Skype and blogs that make staying in touch somewhat easier but it is never the same as being there.It has been particularly difficult for my Mom to be separated from her only grandchild, Joshua, whom she knows almost exclusively through the pictures that we post on the Joshua blog and the stories that we tell her in phone calls and emails. When she was rediagnosed with cancer a few months ago, she really wanted us to come home. We weren't due for home assignment until the end of 2010 but as it became obvious that Mom's condition was much more tenuous than
I was recently talking with a pastor whose church does not send any long-term missionaries.It is a vibrant church with many members and a vision for missions, and they could probably send and support their own long-term missionaries if they wanted to.But it seems that they don’t want to.Why not?This pastor told me about what he believes to be more strategic, more effective, and most cost-efficient way to do missions outreach than sending long-term missionaries.
This pastor and his church conduct many short-term training events and seminars throughout the world, gathering together a large group of local leaders and teaching them in an intensive course.When the course is done, the pastor and his team go back to the USA and the local leaders go back to their homes and churches, presumably to put into practice what they have learned.Besides live teaching from short-term missionaries, this pastor is also committed to getting a video training course called ISOM into the hands of groups of leaders in various countries, to be used in place of live teachers but administered by a local coordinator/facilitator who leads discussions about the video course material.It is his belief that Western churches can have a much bigger global impact for the Gospel by doing missions through this type of short-term leadership training rather than paying for long-term foreign missionaries (I am defining “missionary” as one who intentionally crosses barriers of language and culture to share the Gospel with those who would normally not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel within their cultural and/or linguistic context).
At one point in the history of missions, it was rather difficult to get approved for missionary service unless you were an ordained pastor (or married to one). There were exceptions, of course, for those who were going to serve as school teachers, doctors, and other types of ministries that did not primarily involve Bible teaching. However, where we find ourselves today, in many cases, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Churches and mission organizations vary in their requirements, from very stringent to very lax, but since I got involved with missions about twelve years ago on a short-term trip to Poland, I have heard many times over, from various places, something along the following lines, “If you love Jesus and are willing, then you’re ready to be a missionary.” Granted, loving Jesus and being willing are very important but is that all that is needed? I was reading the book of Ezra today and came across this verse:“For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)
John Piper has provided a very insightful reflection on the possible link between seeker-sensitive churches in the West and radical (over)contextualization on the mission field. Read Piper's blog post on "Minimizing the Bible?"Contextualization is one of the big issues among missionaries because the way mission work has been done in the past tended to be too Western and did not take sufficient account of the need to adapt the way church, evangelism, discipleship, etc. is done in non-Western cultures. However, in some corners of the mission world today, the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction. In the name of removing Western cultural barriers that would prevent people from coming to Christ, some missionaries (and local Christians) are allowing or even promoting practices that are actually a compromise of the Gospel. Let me give just a couple examples.I've heard about a missionary in Northeast Thailand who is teaching converts to call themselves "New Buddhists" (new in the sense that they believe in Christ). Okay, so perhaps the offense of being perceived as converting to a Western religion is avoided by avoiding the label "Christian" but there is certainly an equal if not greater
How do you communicate the Gospel to someone who has absolutely zero foundation in the Bible? In this fascinating and helpful lecture on “Worldview Evangelism”, Don Carson makes the case that sharing the Gospel with postmodern Westerners is not really that different than sharing the Gospel with animistic tribes, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims or anyone else without a Judeo-Christian framework in their cultural background. You start at the beginning. The cross of Christ makes no sense without the Old Testament foundations which provide the framework for understanding the nature and character of God, man’s nature and origin, the truth about the spiritual realm (in contrast to an animistic/occult perspective), and a bit of the history of how God relates to people. Some may wonder whether it is really necessary to go through the work of laying down the Old Testament foundations before getting to Jesus. Take a listen to Don Carson’s opening story about his missionary friend’s experience in India and you’ll get a picture of how a failure to set a framework and teach a Biblical worldview first can lead to syncretism and nominalism.Although the word “contextualization” is sometimes abused in order to justify a watered-down repackaging of Gospel, it’s proper meaning is to teach and live out the Gospel in a way that is clear and understandable in a given cultural context - whether that be young Western postmodern relativists or Thai Buddhists/animists or anybody else. What is the Biblical truth and how do you teach and express it (live it out) in a given context? Good contextualization should make clear the difference between the Gospel and other worldviews, and in all things not sinful take on the cultural/local garb of where the Gospel is being presented.I don’t claim to have all the answers, either for the West or for Thailand, but in order to do contextualization well one needs to understand the Bible thoroughly and understand the culture as thoroughly as possible. I am still working on both of those and will be for years to come. By knowing the culture, I don’t mean being conversant with every pop musician or fad TV show that comes down the pike, but rather understanding the beliefs and values that shapes people’s outlook on the world. When that happens, it becomes easier to anticipate common objections and misunderstandings in response to the Gospel (or a particular presentation of it). Understanding the culture also helps one to know what people are interested in, what fires them up, what excites them, what concerns them, what makes them afraid. All these things can provide a conversation starter that can be an opening for talking about spiritual truths. It can also give insight into what areas of discipleship will probably need special attention.With that said, take a listen to Carson’s talk on "Worldview Evangelism". There are actually five lectures in the series on “Reaching an Untouched Generation”. I have finished the Worldview Evangelism one and highly recommend it. I’ve also started listening to one on “Apostolic Evangelism of Biblical Illiterates” which covers Paul’s sermon in the Aeropagus in Acts 17. This one is quite good so far and I hope to listen to the other three as time allows. (Thanks to Rich Cho for recommending these sermons)
In the United States, there is currently a debate about whether preachers should contextualize the Gospel. Those who oppose contextualization view those who favor it as people who compromise and undermine the true Biblical Gospel in the name of winning a hearing. Some of those who advocate for contextualization claim that those who don't contextualize (as they define it) are are going to fail to reach the current generation.I've done a number of posts that deal with the issue of contextualization, realizing that some readers may misunderstand where I am coming from, and exactly what I am advocating. For those who are confused about contextualization or who suspect that I may be compromising the Gospel by advocating for contextualization, I want to recommend Dr. David Sills recent blog post on Reclaiming Contextualization. Sills discusses what is proper contextualization, why it is necessary, and how the term has been abused and redefined in recent debates.
A young man from one of our supporting churches recently emailed with the following question, "I was wondering if you have ever heard of anyone using music education as a platform for missions. If someone wanted to do something like that, how might they get started?" I imagine that there are lots of Christians out there who are interested in missions but not quite sure if their interests and skills are usable on the mission field and if so, how. So I thought I would post our answer to his question in hopes that others who are wondering about getting involved in missions, particularly in the area of music, would be benefited."There are lots of ways to use music education in missions. Formally, you can get a job teaching music education in a school, either in the local language or more likely in English. In a number of countries, there are schools that want to offer an international track where local students have all their classes in English, including various subject matter like science, math, music and so forth. Of course, there are also international schools, both secular and Christian where one can also be a music teacher. The requirements to teach in the Christian (MK) schools are probably lower than the secular ones. Getting a job as a music teacher in a school is something that