“When Everything is Missions” – A Review (Part III)

“When Everything is Missions”
by Matthew Ellison and Denny Spitters
Copyright 2017 Pioneers-USA & Sixteen:Fifteen
(A review by Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz)

This is the third of eight posts that will examine the ideas and analysis found in Ellison and Spitters fine volume. We are posting a review of a new chapter every week or so. In this third post, we take a close look at Chapter 2: What is our mission? (by Denny Spitters)

Noted missiologist, J. D. Payne, states of Ellison and Spitters’ book: “Brief, powerful, and provocative book that should be read by every North American pastor in the next 12 months. Spitters and Ellison write, ‘When every Christian is a missionary and every ministry is missions, I contend that we gut the mandate to reach all nations.'” We heartily concur with Payne’s opinion!

If you have read our first two reviews, you should be on the edge of your chair in anticipation of this third post. Will the authors finally get to the heart of the issue in chapter two? The simple answer is “yes,” but that answer calls for clarification. The topic of defining missions is no small thing in the current climate. That may explain how we end up with a chapter that is twice as long as either the introduction or chapter one. And we will try to avoid being simplistic and yet attempt to simplify things here!

On p. 36-37 Spitters lists and defines five terms: (1) Missio Dei; (2) Mission; (3) Missional; (4) Missions; and (5) Frontier Missions. (We wonder if a definition of the oft-abused term “missionary” wouldn’t be helpful, as well. And indeed, we are pleased to note that the title of chapter 4 is: “Is Ever Christian a Missionary?” Can’t wait!) However, rather than attempting to deal with all five definitions in a short review, it would be easier to boil this chapter down to essentially the two primary models of missions to which Spitters devotes the bulk of the time. The first would be what Spitters would call the “Missio Dei” (36).

Echoing God’s declaration in Num. 14:21 (“All the earth will be filled with My glory”), Abraham Kuyper once declared: “There is not one square inch of the creation over which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'” The model of the “Missio Dei” points our thinking to this grand scheme of God’s intention to ultimately see that “everything is summed up in Christ” (Eph. 1:10) and “all things are placed under the feet of Jesus” (I Cor. 15:25).

The “Missio Dei” focuses on the overarching narrative of Scripture that portrays mission as the very center of God himself. It is comprehensive in scope because it includes everything God has ever done and ever will do to elevate and display his glory. It signifies that “all that God does in the world and all that He is doing to accomplish His objective is the complete exaltation of the fame of His name: ‘I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth’ (Psa. 46:10)” (Spitters, p. 36)

Spitters sees authors Christopher J. H. Wright, author of the volume, “The Mission of God,” and David Bosch as representatives of the “Missio Dei” model. He is clearly concerned that these two authors (in particular) advocate the “Missio Dei” model to the minimizing of biblical cross-cultural evangelism. [However, we maintain that a broad reading of the writings of these two authors can alleviate any concern about the trajectory of their missiology. More about these and other authors in “For further reading and review” below.]

The fact that (in our experience) American churches’ seem to rely solely on an over-simplification of the “Missio Dei” model leads Spitters (and Ellison) to their concern that once everything (ie., “Missio Dei”) is missions, nothing is missions. That is a valid concern.

In chapter two Spitters emphasizes a second model as a corrective to what he perceives as a philosophical imbalance. Our experience with coaching church missions committees lead us to agree that such an imbalance exists, a corrective is necessary, and we are grateful for this emphasis.

So it is that we encounter what Spitters would simply call “missions” (p. 36-37). This is the endeavor of the church to bring the Good News to the nations to address the problem of human rebellion against God and the subsequent lostness of humanity.

The biblical mandate that requires the church to cross cultural barriers to penetrate ethnic groups beyond the reach of the Gospel with the Word of God is a vanishing aspect of missiology in evangelicalism today. We are profoundly grateful that Spitters makes the case for the biblical basis of “missions” as the proclamation of the Gospel across cultural barriers to penetrate unreached people groups. This kind of thinking is rarely found in many evangelical churches and amongst most believers today.

For further reading and thinking…

Concerning Christopher J. H. Wright: We feel that the quoting of Wright from the writings of Ferdinando, instead of going to Wright’s original writings, inadequately represents Wright’s missiology. While Spitters is concerned that Wright “…blurs biblical distinctions about the mission of God and the mission of the church” (p. 42), a broader reading of Wright’s voluminous writings can alleviate such worries.

Also, a careful reading of “The Mission of God,” especially the 40-page section in which Wright develops a full-blown comprehensive biblical hermeneutic for missions, would lay to rest the suggestion that “…Wright gives little biblical hermeneutic to support his case…” (p. 43).

Wright’s writings also indicate that, while “Missio Dei” includes traditional mission efforts designed to evangelize, make disciples, plant churches, or penetrate unreached peoples, the “Missio Dei” also transcends the traditional view of “missions” to include creation care, social justice, ethical conduct of God’s people, and compassion ministries without neglecting the proclamation of the Gospel. For example, in his volume, “The Mission of God,” Wright tackles the danger of “social action without evangelism” on p. 286f.

Again, on p. 316 in “The Mission of God,” Wright states: “Even if we agree that biblical mission is intrinsically holistic and that Christians should be involved in the whole wide range of biblical imperatives – seeking justice, working for the poor and need, preaching he gospel of Christ, teaching, healing, feeding, educating, and so forth – isn’t it still the case that evangelism has primacy in all of this?”

And in his companion volume to “The Mission of God,” “The Mission of God’s People,” Wright addresses on pp. 273-278 the “wholeness” of evangelism and social action. To Wright, it is not a case of “either/or” but “both/and.” Every whole, healthy, balanced, biblical missiology must integrate the “Missio Dei” with “cross-cultural ethnically-focused missions.” We are positive that Matthew and Denny agree with this assessment.

Another fabulous wealth of material for further exploration of the focus of chapter two and the authors quoted can be found in the text for the course “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.”

For example, ch. 5, p. 27-33, titled “Mission and God’s Earth,” gives a fuller explanation of Wright’s “Missio Dei” missiology

Again, in the Perspectives text, Steve Hawthorne (ch. 8, p. 49-63), in an article titled “The Story of his Glory,” suggests that a resolution of the ongoing tension between social responsibility and proclamation of the Gospel is gained by focusing on God’s glory: “Glory comes to God by Gospel declaration or a kind deed done in his name.” (p. 62)

Finally, David Bosch’s, also in the Perspectives text (ch. 12, 78-82) titled “Witness to the World” reveals his sound biblical thinking on the issue of the Christological foundation of missions.

As a closing suggestion and tangentially related to this chapter, we would recommend the interested reader consider taking the course “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” (www.perspectives.org). We know that Ellison and Spitters are familiar with this course and would highly recommend it as well. We (Dave and Joe) have not found any one tool that is quite as effective as this 15-week course to help the budding missiologist begin formulating a biblical missions hermeneutic.

“When Everything is Missions” – A Review (Part II)

“When Everything is Missions”
by Matthew Ellison and Denny Spitters
Copyright 2017 Pioneers-USA & Sixteen:Fifteen

(A review by Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz)

This is the second of eight posts that will examine the ideas and analysis found in this little volume. In this second post, we give our reflections on Chapter 1.

Chapter 1: Do Our Definitions Matter?

We (Dave and Joe) have some experience in working with churches to help them move forward on God’s mission. And more than once we have been flummoxed as we realized that we were going to have to confront the “everything is missions” mentality if we were going to help a church gain traction. So we certainly share Denny and Matthew’s concern about the implications of failing to properly define terms.

The theme of this chapter could be summarized this way: “If we are concerned about the progress of God’s mission in the world, then how we define terms matters. And the term ‘mission’ is in desperate need of defining in the 21st century.”

The unease about words and their meanings by both authors undoubtedly arises out of the difficulties they have experienced while working with churches. It’s problematic for a church to have a coherent missions philosophy and policy if there are fundamental disagreements or misunderstandings among its leaders over the basic meaning of words like “missions, evangelism,” and “Great Commission.”

This first chapter, written by Matthew, has two main points. First, there is great confusion in the church over the most important thing the Church is supposed to be doing. He starts off by asking an unusual question (p. 26): “How much confusion is there in the Church about the meaning of the Great Commission?” And again on p. 28, he ponders whether Jesus has left the interpretation of the Great Commission up to individual churches? We thought it a little odd that even before the authors define the meaning of the term “mission,” they appear to be conflating the terms “mission” and “Great Commission.” This is an easy thing to do and may prove to not even be that big a deal. (If your response is, “Wait a minute! Why are we already using a word, ‘missions,’ that doesn’t even occur in our English Bibles?” then be patient. That question is addressed in chapter 2.)

One might respond, “Of course we conflate them. Missions is the carrying out of the Great Commission and vice versa.” But when the authors spend a good amount of time arguing that definitions really do matter (to which we would definitely agree), and then terms are used interchangeably before definitions are agreed upon, the reader can easily get confused.

We might pose our concern this way: “Is ‘missions’ biblically synonymous with the Great Commission?” The need for clarity is highlighted on p. 28 as the authors inquire: “Does God expect us to pool our good ideas and pursue the things we care about, or did Jesus intend to convey objective meaning and purpose when he gave His final marching orders?” Yes, does Scripture give objective content to the thrust of God’s mission? Or is the term “mission” a good term to use to describe everything from going to live among an animistic tribe to translate the Bible into their own language to taking some teens to Appalachia to repair the roof on a church building.

Perhaps a more helpful approach might be to remove the word “missions” entirely from our vocabulary and then ask whether the argument is really about whether the church is really taking the Great Commission seriously? Or conversely, perhaps we should be talking about the topic of “missions” without bringing the Great Commission into the conversation at such an early point.

Second, there is great potential danger when we fail to define terms. This danger is illustrated on p. 29. At (and after) the Edinburgh World Missions Conference of 1910, a deliberate decision was made to prevent conflict or controversy by avoiding any discussion of theology or doctrine. The authors cite missiologist David Hesselgrave who calls this the “Edinburgh Error.” Hesselgrave argues that the seeds of the collapse of a great missions movement were planted early on by this decision. Not only did the participants avoid doctrinal examination, but they resisted any attempt to define mission by Scriptural standards. The resultant struggles of the Student Volunteer Movement are well-documented. Whether or not Hesselgrave overstates this “error” while neglecting other issues (like the two world wars that diminished the availability of potential young volunteers) can be left to the missions historians to debate.

On a personal level, as we were going through Chapter 1, Joe had flashbacks of memories of team meetings from his short time on the mission field. The team would gather and the members would go around the room reporting on what they were doing. Then one of the senior members of our young team would, with annoying (though necessary) regularity, exhort us to “make sure you can articulate how what you are doing is contributing toward church planting!”

With a lack of agreement on the definition of their team’s purpose, the team was doing “good things” but then trying to retrofit them into a church-planting paradigm. It was simply assumed that “church-planting” was the team’s raison d’etre. In like manner, most churches are trying to do many “good things” in missions with little biblical definition and with little agreement on the approach or goal.

We re-read the Stephen Neill quote on p. 28: “The mission of God cannot be the catch-all that includes everything from folding bulletins, to picking up trash on the highway, to coaching a ball team, to the gospel infiltrating a previously unreached people.”

We had to ask ourselves, “Do we agree with Neill?” To that we would add, is there not a danger in conflating “missions” with “church planting”? Or “the Great Commission”? Or making “missions” synonymous with “working in a soup kitchen”? We know sincere Christians who dig wells or bring medical care or construct church buildings, but some of these efforts seem to be an end in themselves. We also know missionaries who do these same kinds of things in order to make inroads to an unreached people group. Perhaps it is a matter of intent.

In summary, we quote Scot McKnight’s helpful observation (p. 31-32) in full. Under the heading “Mission Work Has Become Social Work,” McKnight muses: “What will become of us? Missions, international missions and foreign missions are now engulfed in NGOs and global justice and water projects and infrastructure. Evangelicalism was once built on church-planting pioneers. Always, or at least nearly always, such missionaries were fully engaged in church-planting as well as compassion and provisions so far as they were able. But they were there to preach and teach the gospel and win people to Christ. That’s evangelicalism.”

McKnight continues: “A friend of mine, a missionary, told me that in the last 15 years in his corner of the missionary world he has seen not one new missionary concerned with church planting and evangelism; they are all NGO types. Giving to NGOs is on the rise; giving to church-planting is on the decline. Organize a day for evangelism training and you will be alone or close to it; organize a day for some kind of social action and you may see more than for a Sunday morning service.”

In a Central Asian context, a similar observation was made by a Korean missionary when he said that “when Korean missionaries come they plant churches. When American missionaries come they start NGO’s.”

The chapter ends with a worrisome question: “Have we drifted from our God-given mission?” The book appears to be headed toward a “yes” answer to this question, and the reason seems to be that we have failed to adequately define our key missiological terms. Stay tuned…

“When Everything is Missions” – A Review

“When Everything is Missions”
by Matthew Ellison and Denny Spitters
Copyright 2017 Pioneers-USA & Sixteen:Fifteen

(A review by Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz)

This is the first of eight posts that will examine the ideas and analysis found in this little volume. We hope to post an evaluation of a new chapter every week or so. In this first post, we take a close look at the “Introduction.”

We believe that this little 144-page book is long overdue. Tackling as it does fundamental missions issues that are bedeviling the church and missions community, it fortunately doesn’t duck the tough questions as it challenges current trends in missions.

Denny is the VP for Church Partnerships for Pioneers USA and Matthew is the President and Church Missions Coach at Sixteen:Fifteen. We know both of the authors fairly well, we recognize that they clearly love the church and want to see her be the fullest expression of what God wants it to be. We are also aware of the fact that they are interacting with churches on an almost daily basis. For this reason, their impressions about trends in the church should be taken seriously, even where data may not be available to back up their ideas. They have earned the right to have their voices heard.

Denny and Matthew have taken on a formidable challenge. We are certainly hopeful that they are up to the test, but whenever you attempt to get people to redefine a word or words or rethink a common idea, you are usually swimming against a pretty swift cultural tide.

The introduction opens with the story of a church that wrestled with its missions philosophy. The church had stagnated in growth and was floundering in its efforts to make disciples and do missions (whatever that means!). Enter a new senior pastor whose philosophy could be summed up as “Everything is missions and evangelism are essentially one” and the recipe is right for an interesting book.

The authors highlight a fundamental problem in churches: that “many churches find themselves at a loss to define their global mission” (19). This is due, in part, to the fact that the time required to study and think through a coherent missions philosophy is not available. “…Many churches do not do missions well because they do not think about missions well” (19).

Ellison and Spitters go back to basics when they tackle the fundamental issue of definitions of terms: “If words have meaning, then their definitions and uses matter. When everything is missions, some of the most central aspects may be lost or buried…“ (p. 20) The “central aspects” they have in mind include ideas like churches sending their own people, making disciples, and crossing cultural barriers. The authors consider the issue of definitions to be so critical that they have devoted the entire first chapter of the book to it (our next post will review chapter one). So their desire is to get people to define missions differently, or perhaps with greater specificity.

The down side of missing these “central aspects” is that “an over-emphasis on getting bang for our buck may also lead us to ministries that make us feel good or seem to provide a greater return on investment. Some of our churches leave missions to our denominations and networks or partner with ministries that offer us low-cost opportunities to sponsor missionaries or projects far away. Yet does outsourcing missions come with hidden costs, perhaps at the expense of our own souls?” (20)

So it is that the authors clearly declare that “…we will directly challenge some assumptions surrounding the growing assumption or conviction that ‘every Christian is a missionary and every ministry is missions.'” (21)

It seems that Ellison and Spitters are really addressing two issues here. First, our definition of missions has become rather squishy. They quote Stephen Neill who throws down the gauntlet: “If everything is mission, nothing is mission. If everything the church does is to be classified as ‘mission,’ we shall need to find another term…” (9) Second, we have become so utilitarian about the Great Commission that we contract the cross-cultural piece out in the name of efficiency. They are correct that, in some way, we are damaging our souls by doing it this way. We are also contributing to a serious decline in interest and support for apostolic, pioneering missions activity. (23) We suspect that this second concern really has less to do with the definition of missions but more to do with the way we go about it. And, of course, one has to wonder whether there is any data to back up this claim or whether it is just an impression the authors have gotten (either way, their suspicions seem well-founded).

We were particularly alarmed to consider the implications of the new direction in missions: “Yet we are concerned that an uncritical use of words, and in particular a lack of shared definition for the words ‘mission, missions, missionary, and missional’ has led to a distortion of Jesus’ biblical mandate, ushered in an ‘everything-is-missions’ paradigm, and moved missions from the initiation and oversight of local churches to make it the domain of individual believers responding to individualized callings. ” (23)

With this summary paragraph, Matthew and Denny provide a clear sense of direction as to where they are headed. The pendulum has shifted to a new generation’s approach to mission: “In defining missions poorly, past generations of Christians have sometimes made missions about money, power, and counting converts. In our own generation, a strong embrace of the ‘everything-is-mission’ paradigm has sometimes resulted in an humanitarian mission devoid of the gospel. While ‘everybody is a missionary’ thinking has been intended to level the playing field for greater participation in making disciples, has this inclusivism had another unintended result, at times? Has it led to a serious decline in interest in and support for apostolic, pioneering missions activity?” 23)

It’s safe to say that we’re interested. We look forward to getting into the book to see the causal connection between an “everything-is-missions paradigm” and how that leads to making missions less the domain of the local church and more the domain of individual believers. We hope they can accomplish what they have set out to do! Stay tuned!

A Festive Gathering of Myriads of Angels

Getting old has its tensions. The grip of earth intensifies as good things – children, grandchildren, ministry, friendships – bind our hearts to life here and make us want to stay as long as possible. Life is full of goodness and we all have a plethora of reasons for wanting to hang around a little while longer.

But each of us faces the reality that “the end” is coming. Notice how we describe death: “the end.” Frank Sinatra sang of “the final curtain.” Must we approach this certainty we call “death” with a sense of finality, fear, and gloom?

And what does this potentially depressing theme have to do with missions? I think a lot! We proclaim a Gospel that says that Jesus, on the Cross, defeated the one who has the power of death and who holds people in bondage to the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15). Surely a deep confidence in the Cross must lead believers to increasingly approach their earthly demise in a different manner than those who do have not experienced the liberating power of the Gospel. And if God’s people, who are called to be engaged with his mission, are negatively preoccupied with our eventual demise, our pessimistic approach to departure from this earth actually belies the Gospel message we proclaim as true.

The author of Hebrews would have none of this nonsense. There is a palpable sense of exhilaration as the letter crescendos from chapters 2 through 12 in a tsunami that celebrates a single thought: Death is not “the end” but a continuation of what God has already begun!

One clear example of this is found in Hebrews 11. While we are accustomed to highlighting the characters in that great chapter who “lived by faith,” we may be inclined to give short shrift to those who “died in faith.” And yet the earthly passing of four characters – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph – actually emphasizes their dying by faith, not how they lived (Heb. 11:17-22).

Much could be said about those six verses in Hebrews 11 – maybe a topic for a future blog. But suffice it to say, the entirety of chapters 11 and 12, reveals the secret of dying by faith. Those who live by faith view themselves as exiles on earth and have their hopes invested in their actual country, their heavenly city, their eternal homeland. It is there that all of the adversity and affliction in life will be put in perspective as we join in with myriads of angels in a grand “panegyric.”

“Panegyric” (a “festive celebration”) is an English term that comes from a Greek word that occurs a handful of times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, usually in reference to both legitimate and illegitimate festal occasions. But it is used only once in the New Testament (Heb. 12:22). In that text, the writer is valiantly attempting to describe the excitement awaiting us in eternity:

“You have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to countless hosts of angels in festive celebration, and to the assembly of the firstborn ones who are enrolled in heaven… “(Hebrews 12:22-23)

God loves a good party, and he has hard-wired into all of us a love of good music and cuisine, celebrations, sunsets, laughter. All of these experiences capture a little of the flavor of the “festive celebration” in Hebrews 12:22 to which we are invited as “members of the assembly of firstborn ones enrolled in heaven.” This is one more incentive that the Gospel provides to encourage us to approach our deaths in faith and hope.

One of my favorite movies, Babette’s Feast, is a story that captures this heavenly panegyric spirit. Babette is a famous French chef who flees from counter-revolutionary activity in Paris and arrives as a refugee at an austere Danish religious village where she offers to serve the community as a housekeeper.

Of course, the elderly members of this dwindling congregation have no idea of the amazing talents of their visitor as they assign her the tasks of a menial servant. They even instruct and correct her as she prepares various meals! And she patiently endures their “lessons.”

Babette serves this community for 14 years. Though these pietistic Danes are reluctant to admit they find pleasure in any of the five senses, gradually Babette earns their grudging respect.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, a friend has continued to renew Babette’s subscription to the French lottery. One day she receives the news that she has won the lottery! Babette secretly decides to spend the entire sum on an elaborate feast, a “panegyric,” if you will, for the community of twelve.

With elaborate preparations under way, the leaders of the community fret that this event may appeal to their baser desires and foment an inappropriate spirit of revelry. But once the participants begin to eat and imbibe, their resistance fades away. The amazing cuisine and buoyant atmosphere lifts their hearts and they find themselves emotionally and spiritually renewed. Old hurts are forgiven and superstitions are dispelled. And they realize how they have devoted a lifetime to suppressing the enjoyment of their God-given sensory pleasures.

After the dinner, it is discovered that Babette had spent her entire fortune on the “panegyric” and is once again destitute. A Parisian who had coincidentally attended the feast, declared: “But this is not the end, Babette. In Paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be.” He then embraced her with tears in his eyes saying, “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”

This is how this delightful story ends. This is also the “final” note that the Scriptures leave us with as well. Not the dismal expectation of “death,” but the eager anticipation of a wildly exuberant panegyric event the likes of which none of us can imagine. We will be as we were meant to be. In attendance will be a myriad of the heavenly hosts as well as all of the saints who have gone before us.

Our Groom will be there, for this festivity is a unique wedding party, a veritable jamboree that will overwhelm us with joy and gladness. Death is not “the end” but the start of a great panegyric!

As the old hymn declared with exuberance: “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!”

Church Growth: A Solution Looking for a Problem?

According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the median size American church has 75 participants on Sunday morning. That means half of American churches are smaller, and half are larger.

However, if we were to talk about average church size (the mean), the number “soars” to 186 attenders. This number is skewed to a degree due to the influence of very large churches.

Another statistic indicates that 90% of all American churches have less than 350 members. And statistics can be very confusing to people (like me) who have a hard time understanding algorithms and complex statistical analysis. But we may summarize (as one blogger puts it): “While most of the churches in America are small, most of the attenders go to large churches.”

The other night I was having a conversation with a wise member of a very large church (2,000-3,000 attenders on a weekend) who bemoaned the perceived obsession with church growth. His concern was that there is a price to pay when numbers increase. First, budgetary concerns are aggravated as new funding will be needed to minister to these new people.

Second, growth can make it increasingly difficult to focus on the primary job of the church, to build mature followers of Jesus.

Third, this problem is exacerbated by the reality that often these new members arrive for a multiplicity of reasons, but not always because they want to grow in their faith. People can be attracted by size, good programs, excellent care of their children, high quality music, or excellent preaching. None of these are necessarily wrong, but the old adage says that “what you attract them with is what will keep them there.”

Yes, the “notoriety” of the modern “mega-church” can breed a new unhappiness with the size of our congregations. I am a member of a church that (without me counting heads each week) probably approaches the median size for an American church. But I hear voices in our congregation that express concern about our size. “How can we grow?” they ask. “Why aren’t we growing? What would we do if we had dramatic growth?” I don’t recall these questions dominating the conversations of church leaders before the advent of Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, Saddleback, and Rick Warren. Perhaps the “successes” of some have spawned the seeds of our discontent.

Though I understand these concerns, I also wonder if they reflect a wrong assessment of the situation. I haven’t expressed my opinion on this topic with members of my church, but I have held some firm opinions on the subject and have been giving it a lot of thought lately. And so an article by Karl Vaters immediately caught my eye as it accurately articulated my thinking:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/2017/february/is-church-growth-solution-looking-for-problem.html

In this article, Vaters ponders: “We’ve invested a lot into the art and science of church growth in the last 50 years. It makes me wonder. After such a massive output of time, energy, research and money, have we become like the proverbial man with a hammer who sees everything as a nail? Is that why church growth is always the go-to answer for every challenge? Because we can’t afford it not to be? Has church growth become a solution looking for a problem?”

Vaters suggests that the early church was not that much different from today’s church. They had multiple problems with multiple fixes recommended in the epistles. We can easily postulate a solution to our problems today by fixating on church growth. But, says Vaters, “church growth was never a solution…No New Testament writer ever told a sick, dying, or hurting church to get bigger…Perhaps they didn’t consider numerical congregational growth to be as important as we do.”

My contention all along has been that we need to prioritize church health, not church growth. Yes, the church grew dramatically (in Jerusalem, in particular) but not because the apostles were fixated on size. The actual reason for this growth is obvious in Acts: they were doing the things that can produce a healthy church.

No, I am not suggesting that, if we do those same “right” things, our churches will have a dramatic upward spike in attendance. By analogy, though God may bless us financially if we are generous givers, our motivation for giving should never be to get blessed. In like manner, churches that do the right things may (or may not) grow numerically. But the motive for doing those right things should be because they’re right, not because we see them as a gimmick to increase our numbers.

Vaters makes the astute observation that “church growth and church health are not the same.” I could easily make a corollary observation: “the increasing problems that accompany church growth should make congregational leaders a bit nervous about striving for more members.” My fear is that, in the mad rush for growth, the necessary foundations may be ignored that might enable the church to actually manage new members in a mature and healthy fashion.

For instance, with biblical illiteracy a recognized problem in the American evangelical church, perhaps leaders should be addressing that deficiency rather than fixating on numerical growth. Or, with fragmenting relationships causing isolation and a “going it alone” mentality among believers, perhaps pastors and elders should prioritize the training, equipping, and supporting of small group leaders as a step toward “doing the right thing” for congregational nurture and maturity.

Vaters concludes: “Jesus told us to go and make disciples. And yes, that would mean church growth. But no apostle ever named growth as a strategy for fixing a broken church. And John, when he addressed the challenges, sins and blessings of the seven churches in Revelation, never told any of them to grow, either.”

The problem confronting your church today is not church growth but church maturity. Focus on the maturation of those who attend your church and sense the pleasure of Jesus as you are nurturing his precious bride.

Thoughts on Retiring the Word “Missionary”

Recently I came across this article and my mind and heart resounded with an emphatic “yes.”

http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/february/why-i-think-its-time-to-retire-word-missionary.html

I have argued for years that the terms “missions” and “missionary” have become distorted and skewed with years of use, misuse, and abuse. The time has come to conjure up new ways of talking about God’s cosmic eternal plan to redeem all things under the authority of his Son.

Amy Peterson has nicely articulated some of my thinking while also given us a good word study on the history and development of the term “missionary.”

Dave Shive

“Generosity – Essential to the Great Commission” – Dave Shive

I have long maintained that generosity is one of the great antidotes to greed, is a remedy for consumerism, and is a key to fulfilling the Great Commission. To go for the jugular, I have furthered insisted that tithing as it is preached and practiced in the American church can be one of the great enemies of the spread of the Gospel. Thus, I have held the position that too much preaching on tithing and too little teaching on generosity has produced a stingy church that focuses too much on percentages and obligation and too little on liberty, grace, and the joyful release of Kingdom resources.

Wow! I sense the hackles rising up on the necks of my readers with that opening salvo! Before I get a return barrage of objections, permit me to expand a little on my perspective –

Recently a friend of mine on a church staff e-mailed me with a question that set me to thinking. He asked: “Do I tithe to the church of which I am under the employ? It seems circular and not really helpful. If I did that, it seems like I should just tell them to cut my pay 10%. I’m thinking I should give to other places. Thoughts?”

Now I thought that was a great open door for me to jump in feet first – his line of reasoning gave me the opportunity to try to challenge his thinking a little – and those who know me know I don’t like to miss that kind of opportunity.

Here is my opening thought: “Not to split hairs, but first of all, I don’t teach tithing, nor do I believe it is relevant to giving. I think tithing distracts us from the NT model of generosity. II Corinthians 8-9 and the churches at Macedonia set the standard for giving that pleases God. Tithing can easily get us focused on percentages and obligation, whereas generosity frees us up to be glad, joyful, liberated, free with
our finances.”

My point? (No, I don’t have time here to discuss the often-misunderstood role of tithing in the OT. Nor do I have space to talk about how the overall concept of “giving-as-tithing” in the OT is rarely as low as 10%.) Paul wrote extensively on stewardship and giving and never once recommended tithing to his audience. Not only that, but in the most extensive discussion of financial giving in the NT (II Cor. 8-9), Paul’s unbridled enthusiasm for generosity as an expression of grace is palpable. The situation Paul was responding to in II Corinthians would have been a fabulous opportunity for him to speak on tithing, and yet he circumspectly never commands or even suggests the tithe.

I went on to comment: “So, the real question to me is: Where, with whom, and how much do I want to be generous? Asking this question frees you to think creatively, to be sensitive to the Lord. It may very well lead you to go well beyond the 10% of tithing as you develop sensitivity to God’s voice and are freed up financially and find generosity to be fun. That may very well get you thinking of how much you want to give to your church AND how much you want to disburse elsewhere as a good steward. Or, the real question could be: Do I want to be generous with my church under which I am employed? And don’t confuse the two. Your church is responsible for paying you – you are responsible for being generous. Those are two separate issues.”

To his concern that it might be “circular” as he gives to his church while his church pays him, I had this thought: “Interestingly enough, I have a parallel situation – there are some missionaries whom Kathy and I supported for years who chose to support us when we decided to raise support. Like you giving to your church, it seems circular, but it isn’t. Each party is being generous and God is pleased.”

Finally, my closing thought for my young friend: “The old saying may seem trite – ‘You can’t out-give God…’ – but there is a deep truth there. It can be exhilarating to be freed up to give beyond the norm, beyond the 10%, liberated from our finances to give with joy from the heart without double-checking to see how the percentage is working out. And to watch how our Generous God takes care of us. Frankly, I think the church is in need of serous teaching on the topic of happy, liberated, bighearted munificence as a statement of our gratitude to God for His largesse to us. Only then we can discover the freedom of deliverance
from what often is really the bondage of tithing.”

A final note those who have made it this far – I do have great respect for those who believe tithing is for today, even as I reject that approach. If you believe in or teach tithing, I want you to know that I am not trying to disparage your position as much as I want to inspire a vision among Jesus’ followers that frees us from captivity to selfishness, greed, percentages, and consumerism, delivering us into the glorious liberty of gladly relinquishing our grip on everything so that we might give ourselves fully to God’s mission.

—- Dave Shive

A Large Gospel, A Large Vision

On a recent foray into western Pennsylvania, I taught a Perspectives class at Crossroads United Methodist Church in Upper St. Clair, PA. I knew this denomination has struggled with doctrinal purity, so my expectations were low. Wow, was I wrong!

Steve Cordle is the pastor of Crossroads, a humble and interesting person. I was pleasantly surprised after meeting Steve and spending a little time with him. Steve “planted” Crossroads in 1991. He is a rigorous and thoroughgoing evangelical who decided way back in his pre-seminary days to align himself with the United Methodist Church. Now, after 26 years at Crossroads, the church has four satellite campuses planted in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

At the Christmas service in 2016, the combined attendance at the five congregations was a whopping 4,000 people. While I don’t worship at the shrine of large numbers, that is nevertheless rather impressive and a cause for rejoicing.

But that’s not all. Steve and his wife Linda were my overnight hosts that evening. As we ate breakfast the next morning, Steve shared with me his plan to plant 100 churches in America, Europe, and Madagascar. At first I was wary of such an audacious claim, but I found myself humbled as I listened and learned.

Scripture declares: “Where there is no (prophetic) vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18). This is a good reminder that genuine vision comes from God and is best discerned by immersion in the Bible to safeguard our minds and emotions from flights of fancy. I could tell that Steve’s vision didn’t come from eating too much pizza before bedtime. He obviously loves Jesus and is a man of prayer and Scripture. And he has invested careful thought, research, and study in the field of church planting.

In obedience to this vision, last year Steve launched a ministry called “A1.8 Movement” (for Acts 1:8) to facilitate this effort. This ministry is designed to produce “church planters” by training and coaching them to launch out and see the Church spread around the world. Steve and his team have made several exploratory trips to Madagascar and are well on their way to establishing a number of vibrant congregations that bring honor to Jesus.

This vision of Steve’s is breath-taking and a good reminder of the importance of God’s people envisioning big things. Last month we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He is perhaps most famous for his “I Have a Dream” speech. We celebrate his life by telling people of all ages, gender, and ethnicity to dream big.

But do all of us budding missiologists actually dream big? I had to ask myself that question as I listened to Steve. My default excuse (“I’m too old to dream”) suddenly seemed lame as I considered this man, not that much younger than me, declaring his confident vision.

Little children are encouraged to dream about what they want to be when they grow up. Why do we stop dreaming when we become adults? Has God nothing left for us to aspire to?

In 1857, a man named Jeremiah Lanphier prayed a simple prayer: “Lord, what would you have me to do?” He sensed God prompting him to start a noon-time prayer meeting for business men in New York City. This vision may or may not seem large to us. But this prayer meeting was the catalyst for what became The Great Awakening as similar prayer meetings spread to other major cities in the USA.

What vision might God have for us if we would just say every day: “Lord, what would you have me to do?”

Can Satan Answer Prayer?

Shortly before Christmas, I was conversing with a friend about a personal dilemma confronting him. He had been offered a “dream job,” but he and his wife concluded after praying about the offer that it was actually Satan’s answer to their prayers.

After realizing that this wonderful job offer was a temptation to his own weakness, my friend shared the struggle with me by e-mail. I quickly concluded that, yes, Satan often does answer our prayers.

As I considered my friend’s dilemma, my thoughts went to Matthew 4:1-11 where Satan attempted to beguile Jesus with alluring enticements. Since Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was a time of fasting, it was undoubtedly also a time of prayer. And it was likely that the matters which Jesus prayed about in the wilderness became the basis of the temptations that Satan posed to Jesus.

Jesus’ temptation came on the heels of his baptism, a spiritual mountaintop experience where his Father openly declared his great pride in his Son: “This is my beloved Son in whom I have taken delight” (Matthew 3:17).

Visualize “the absurd insolence” (as Christopher Wright puts it) of Satan coming on the heels of that wonderful experience with three specific challenges to the very Sonship the Father had endorsed. Says Wright:

Matthew 2 ends with an enigmatic statement about Jesus’ obscurity, perhaps even “insignificance.” That may be why Matthew 3 follows with John’s baptism of Jesus, including the statement, “This is my Son, whom I love, the one in whom I delight” (3:17). This was important to Satan, since the three synoptic Gospels all record that immediately after this event, Satan threw all his effort into getting Jesus to cash in on his identity as the Son of God in ways that would divert him from his real mission (a mission in which Satan saw his own defeat and destruction): “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3, 6).

Imagine Jesus praying, “Father, I’m very hungry and I have the power to make bread to satisfy my cravings. But I want you to be the source of my provision.” Then Satan comes to him and says, “Let’s assume for the moment that you are the Son of God. If so, it would be so easy for you to make some bread out of these stones” (Matthew 4:1-4).

Or contemplate Jesus praying, “Father, I am so comforted at the promises you have made to me of your protection over me. But I do not want to misuse your promises nor take advantage of them purely for my own selfish purposes.” Then Satan comes and says, “You can have status and power right now by simply throwing yourself off of the pinnacle of the temple. After all, your Father has guaranteed that angels will have to come and rescue you. Won’t the crowds be impressed? Think of the power and the status you’ll have” (Matthew 4:5-7).

Or picture Jesus praying, “Father, You have offered me the throne of a kingdom on earth. But I only want to reign over that wonderful kingdom for your purposes, in your timing, and in your way.” Then Satan tempts, ” OK, we both know that your Father has promised you that you will rule over a kingdom. And I’m here to tell you that since I control all of the earth’s kingdoms, I can give you your kingdom right here and now and without the messiness of the Cross, stupid disciples, and hypocritical Pharisees. Just bow down and worship me and I will give it all to you” (Matthew 4:8-10).

Satan does come with answers to prayers! To be offered something that you intensely desire is a euphoric blessing when it comes from God. But it can be a vexing trial when it comes from Satan. And the process of distinguishing between the two can be emotionally wrenching!

Offers and opportunities will come our way in 2017. Some will loom large and impressive while others will appear to be small and unimportant. Some will be God’s answer to our prayers and in fulfillment of a need we have. But others might very well prove to be Satan’s doing to distract us from the mission that God has for us.

Thankfully Jesus has shown us how to recognize and resist pseudo answers to prayer. In each tempting instance, he boldly asserts, “It is written.”

— Dave Shive

Satan, Spiritual Warfare, and Election Day (Part I on “Spiritual Warfare”)

As Election Day draws near, the temptation of Jesus has a lot to tell us about how we should view affairs of state and the current status of American politics.

“And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'” (Luke 4:5-8)

Jesus saw right through this scam of Satan’s. But in spite of Jesus’ adamant refusal to fall for Satan’s con, the disciples struggled for years to make Jesus’ kingdom an earthly, political, temporal reality, even well after his death (see Acts 1:6). Whenever Jesus sought to explain his immediate agenda of death and resurrection as a precursor to the coming Kingdom, the disciples were like peevish children who stick their fingers in their ears and shriek: “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!”

In much the same way, the political earnestness of Jesus’ followers in 2016 exposes our own counter-agenda. While Jesus says, “The meek shall inherit the earth,” we may counter with, “No, the one who sits in the Oval Office rules.” When Jesus declares “My kingdom is not of this world or else my followers would fight,” modern evangelicals clear their throat and intone, “Um…ahem…actually what Jesus meant was that we should loudly argue for our preferred candidate…and publicly denigrate the candidate we don’t like.”

If the temptation to establish an earthly kingdom in Jesus’ name was too much to resist for the first disciples, why would we expect it to be any easier for disciples 2,000 years later?

What is it about the kingdom of God that proves so elusive to those who want to follow Jesus? And what can we surmise about Satan’s agenda during periods of elections, political crises, and governmental transition?

Frankly, I doubt Jesus’ adversary cares very much who sits in the Oval Office. No matter how superior or inferior one candidate might be to another, neither one will usher in the Kingdom of God since that is the task left to the Church. I think Satan is far more interested in getting us embroiled in politics than he is in joining the fray himself. After all, if the work of the Kingdom is put in the hands of Jesus’ followers and not Donald or Hillary, what could be a more effective strategy in spiritual warfare than to get Jesus’ army distracted by…Donald and Hillary?

Spiritual warfare involves two parties warring against each other: Satan and his minions battling against Jesus’ Kingdom agents on earth, the Church. The enemy of Jesus would like us to think that we are doing the work of the Kingdom of God when we immerse ourselves in earthly politics. While involvement in politics might be a worthy venture for a believer, we must never forget that Satan’s kingdom is overt, physical, and relies on cunning, might and lies – and that is the world of politics. On the other hand, Jesus’ kingdom is hidden, mysterious, quiet, gentle, and operates by counter-intuitive principles – a veritable demonstration of the life of Jesus.

When Daniel declared that “it is God who changes the times and the epochs; it is He who removes kings and establishes kings” (Daniel 2:21), he was not merely spouting a cool theological principle. After all, every day that Daniel crawled out of bed and went to his office to ply his trade, he did so with an awareness that he was living under a corrupt pagan named Nebuchadnezzar who governed the Babylonian empire. He was, by the way, one of those kings that God had “established.”

Our paraphrase of Daniel 2:20 might read, “It is the American voters who elect presidents.” But Daniel puts us on notice that, though our democracy with its political activism is wonderful, legal, and won with the lives of American soldiers, we must not confuse it with the glorious eternal Kingdom of Jesus that is coming regardless of what happens in the voting booth on November 8, 2016.

God is still actively engaged in his world, raising up and ousting kings, rulers and presidents. He acts according to his agenda and is driven by the eventual realization of Revelation 11:11 when “the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah. And he will reign forever and ever.” Whatever our voting decisions may be, we must remember that the election of either Donald or Hillary is simply God at work to facilitate the coming of Jesus’ eternal Kingdom. And so we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done!”

(The final installment of theodicy and spiritual warfare will be posted in early December.)