Missions & Evangelism: Lessons Learned

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This year I had the opportunity to go on two very different missions trips (and my firsts).

I was able to fulfill a lifelong dream by traveling to Japan. But I was not there as a tourist, I went as part of a group of four Americans at the invitation of a Christian church in Ishikawa Prefecture. Rendezvousing with two Japanese translators and meeting the pastor and his wife, we served as ambassadors of Christ in a number of ways.

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We canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods with fliers and invited people to some of the upcoming special events the church was hosting. We had daily prayer and focused teachings on prayer and discipleship. We facilitated two screenings of the Jesus film in Japanese. We participated in a Mama & Kids party and were able to engage in Q&A with members of the community. And I had an opportunity to share powerful testimony during the Sunday service about how God has drawn my heart to Japan time and time again and the care I know he has for the Japanese people.

Second, I was able to attend Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta with a group of missionaries through Gamechurch, a nonprofit ministry that attends various gaming conventions across the U.S. and a couple in Europe. For four straight days, we worked a booth in the vendor hall, handing out free swag (lanyards, stickers, pins), gamer Bibles (the gospel of John with some commentary), and told people the simple but profound message of “Jesus loves you.”

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From both of these experiences, here are some of my observations and conclusions:

Speak the Language, Understand the Culture

If you aspire to any missionary or evangelistic activity, you should speak the language and understand the culture. I spent several months prior to my Japan trip not only practicing speaking and reading Japanese via Pimsleur audio CDs, iPad apps, and watching Japanese TV shows on Netflix, but also by reading as many books as I could get my hands on to understand the history, philosophy, aesthetics, and etiquette of Japan. I barely made a dent in the potential pool of linguistic and cultural knowledge, but what I did learn served me immensely in Japan and opened doors.

Likewise with Dragon Con, I understand the culture and speak the language of gaming and various aspects of geeky pop culture. Every Gamechurch missionary is a Jesus-loving gamer! If I was not, I would have had zero credibility (more on that later). Both Japan and video-games are two of my seven core interests, so these trips were natural fits.

Evangelism is Fun

Growing up, I dreaded the idea of traditional evangelism outreach. Accosting strangers in the park or, worse, going door to door, was a thought that raised my anxiety and triggered an avoidance response. I came to identify more with the prophetic type of work, of speaking to and nurturing the people of God, rather than the evangelistic work of reaching out to people who are not yet believers.

Although I am deeply idealistic, I am also extremely pragmatic. I view walking up to strangers at the park or knocking on doors to share the gospel as an ineffective and outdated method, with little hope of making any converts. But more than that, I view such behavior as a violation of the Law of Christ, or specifically of the second greatest commandment. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the phrasing of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you. Would I want Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on my door or interrupting time with my family at the park? Absolutely not! So why would I do that same behavior to others?

But during my two missions trips, I learned that evangelistic outreach can be very enjoyable and rewarding, even addictive! To do it right, you need to be meeting some sort of need or have some sort of unique angle or gimmick. As the old saying goes, nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

My church has had good experiences hosting immigration help seminars, international food festivals, and giving out balloons at a local international festival. In Japan, special events were being advertised or community activities offered. With Gamechurch, we were handing out free stuff! At my most recent job, I would be able to weave apologetics into my weekly ethics lectures in response to questions from atheistic members of the audience. In David Platt’s Radical, he describes setting up a table in New Orleans and offering to read people’s future for free (using scripture).

What Would Jesus Do?

Outside of Dragon Con, a group of angry street preachers / protesters set up on the corner with large signs and loud bullhorns. Their signs pointed out that God hates the sin of the Dragon Con attendees, and that such people as “idolators, porno-freaks, dope heads,” and others are doomed to the fires of hell for eternity. These protesters generated a lot of anti-Christian sentiment inside and outside the convention with their methods. I have seen their like elsewhere before, such as at the BelleChere festival in Asheville, NC.

First, I wonder what their actual goal is. What are they trying to accomplish? I’m genuinely curious. Second, I wonder if they think they can achieve that goal with this particular method. From everything that I saw, they were making Christians look bad and driving people far away from Jesus. Instead of their conversation being “full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), it was nothing but spades of salt.

Thankfully, the extreme negativity of the street “preachers” outside put what we were doing in a much better light inside. We had people say things like, “I’m an atheist, but thank you so much for doing what you’re doing this way, instead of like those guys!” I was happy to be able to say “Jesus loves you” and give out free pins to many, many people, including a self-described Satanist and another guy literally cosplaying as Satan.

As I think through the four gospels, the only people that Jesus was verbally harsh and confrontational with were the self-righteous religious hypocrites. Otherwise, Jesus was dining with sinners (Matthew 9:11) and letting immoral women touch him (Luke 7:39).

Generosity is Good

In a little over one year, I’ve been able to raise $3,500 for missions trips and other charitable endeavors. That is also a first for me. For the past few years I’ve been focused on trying to provide for my family and have had little margin for generosity. That lack of generosity has been gnawing on me. But apparently, I’m better at raising money for missions trips and evangelism than I am at selling books!

With that in mind… stay tuned for an exciting announcement…

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My Four Most Impactful Scripture Passages

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It has been said that the physical appearance of a person’s Bible can provide insight into the condition of their soul. As Charles Spurgeon once put it, “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.” A man I know who mentors at my workplace has a beaten-up HCSB Minister’s Bible that has almost as many handwritten notes as there are actual scriptures, and I can vouch that he has a heart of gold!

As a one-time collector of Bibles, I have a few in very good condition that I use. However, if you examined my first real post-conversion Bible, a ’77 NASB Hebrew-Greek Keyword Study Bible, you could certainly ascertain a few nuggets of information. Specifically, the spine has been bent in such a way that the pages are likely to fall open to one of four specific sections of scripture. These would be the four most impactful passages in my life:

  1. Jeremiah 29:11-14

This is a famous and well-known series of inspirational verses, adorning everything from Christian t-shirts to coffee mugs. However, it was also the catalyst for my salvation experience thirteen years ago. Like an old friend, I return to these time and time again for encouragement.

‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. And I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’

  1. Isaiah 49:1-7

Shortly after becoming a Christian, God spoke to me and referenced this passage. It has been a sort of ongoing prophetic blueprint for my Christian walk, and the very name of this blog has been taken from it. Whenever I am feeling lost, confused, or just uncertain of what God wants me to be doing, I return to this passage for guidance. And, as God revealed to me on a fog-shrouded mountain in Western North Carolina, the job of the arrow is to be sharp, strong, and straight; it is up to the archer where to aim and fire the arrow!

Listen to Me, O islands,
And pay attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called Me from the womb;
From the body of My mother He named Me.
He has made My mouth like a sharp sword,
In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me;
And He has also made Me a select arrow,
He has hidden Me in His quiver.
He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel,
In Whom I will show My glory.”
But I said, “I have toiled in vain,
I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity;
Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the Lord,
And My reward with My God.”

And now says the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant,
To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him
(For I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
And My God is My strength),
He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and its Holy One,
To the despised One,
To the One abhorred by the nation,
To the Servant of rulers,
“Kings will see and arise,
Princes will also bow down,
Because of the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You.”

  1. Psalm 51

 As a totally depraved descendant of Adam, I had a very successful 19-year career as a sinner. Sometimes old habits die hard. Before I came to understand the concept of grace after reading The Hammer of God (Giertz), I would often in my moments of guilt turn to this passage and offer it up as a plaintive plea for mercy to God. Still the most powerful sinner’s prayer I have ever encountered, although you will find that my newer Bibles do not spring open to this passage.

Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Thy sight,
So that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak
And blameless when Thou dost judge.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom.
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which Thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide Thy face from my sins
And blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Thy presence
And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways,
And sinners will be converted to Thee.

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, Thou God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Thy righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Thy praise.
For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
Thou art not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.

By Thy favor do good to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
Then Thou wilt delight in righteous sacrifices,
In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then young bulls will be offered on Thine altar.

  1. Matthew 5-7

The Gospel of Matthew is the single most influential piece of writing I have ever read. And within that longer text, the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) is the cream-filled center. More than anything else, the Sermon on the Mount taught me what it means to be a Christian and how to live a Christian life. If you were stranded on a deserted island and chapters 5-7 of Matthew washed up on shore in a bottle, you would lack for nothing.

When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them…

Astigmatism and Progressive Sanctification

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When you invite God to work on your character, he obliges. Perhaps you prefer the metaphor of a refining fire or horticultural pruning (sometimes it feels more like an ice sculpture being carved with a chainsaw). Either way, God will faithfully carry out his purposes of progressive sanctification if you allow him. And maybe even if you don’t.

Near the beginning of the year, God gently called me out for my pride and stubbornness. I knew about the pride, but I was unaware of the stubbornness. After the initial transformative burst at the time of my salvation at age 19, God has generally changed my character very gradually, allowing me to be prompted by my own conscience as I grew. My tastes in entertainment, political involvement, and even several core theological beliefs have evolved over the years. This past year God has really challenged me in an accelerated fashion on ecumenicalism, racial attitudes, transparent communication with my wife, and trusting him with my money. However, this past month has ramped up to a whole new level of character formation. God has been teaching me some powerful lessons. Namely, that I need to recognize that I am totally dependent on him. Happy with my good health and strong immune system? Boom! Incapacitated by a bout of pneumonia. Have a plan to get debt free and take control of my finances? Boom! $400 chest x-ray and $530 state tax bill. Truly, apart from him I can do nothing (John 15:5) and in him I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

The latest plot twist is that after 32 years of “perfect” eyesight, I am now wearing glasses. Just last month my older brother and I were talking about how neither one of us has ever experienced any vision problems. A week ago I was fine; I went to bed one night with zero concerns and woke up the next day needing glasses. I call it sudden onset astigmatism. There does not seem to be much medical precedent for this, and the optometrist I saw for my first ever eye exam thought it quite strange as well. My sincere belief is that God did it to further humble me. Yesterday I had some clarity on this – needing glasses means I am normal. I am ordinary. If I am honest with myself, ordinary is something I’ve never wanted to be. It is a four letter word.

My favorite movie of all time, Lawrence of Arabia, contains a scene where T.E. Lawrence is meeting with General Allenby after experiencing a major setback. Lawrence is doubting himself and wanting to return home to lead an ordinary life, “Because that’s what I am.” Allenby pressures him, and eventually the façade cracks. “All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?” Lawrence knows he is special and destined for greatness. That is a scene that resonates with me. For a variety of reasons, I have always been an outsider. I have stood apart, never really fit in with the crowd. A self-protective strategy becomes, ‘I don’t fit in because I am different… special… smarter… better than.’ So this concept of being ordinary is something that I need to come to terms with, because thinking of myself as extraordinary sets me apart from the people I am called to love and serve. It is bad old-fashioned pride. Every human being on this planet are like my siblings in the eyes of God. I don’t get special preference. Even as I write these words that is hard for me to grasp. We all are the main characters in our own stories, the centers of our own little universes.

Some of the great men of faith that I admire most – C.G. Bevington, Rees Howells, Brother Yun – were men that had to become completely dependent on God. Reading their memoirs is exhilarating, but terrifying. I’ve never found myself voluntarily or involuntarily placed in a position of true or total dependence on God, but I’m starting to feel it now. He is twisting his divine screws and tinkering at my soul. Thank you, Jesus.

Finding Your Niche

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In my closet is a giant bundle of purple yarn. I bought it years ago when my wife and I led a small group for High School girls. It was a visual and tactile illustration of a crucial point, and every time I open the closet and see it I am reminded of the central theme of that lesson so many nights ago…

Recently I mentioned how Abraham Maslow reflected later in life on the limitations of his famous Hierarchy of Needs and proposed a final stage of Self-Transcendence above Self-Actualization (I highly recommend reading Koltko-Rivera’s very interesting 2006 journal article on the subject). The more I think about it, Self-Transcendence represents not a further stage on a hierarchy but a jumping off point at every stage of the traditional hierarchy. Self-Transcendence represents a pyramid floating above the surface of Maslow’s original vision, if you will, beckoning pilgrims to make the leap.

From a Christian perspective, Jesus challenges us to transcend our biological needs when he repeats that “Man shall not live by bread alone” and “Do not worry then, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or “What will we wear for clothing?’” Jesus challenges us to transcend our safety needs with “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Jesus challenges us to transcend our love and belongings needs with “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus calls us to transcend our esteem needs when he says “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” And finally, Jesus calls us to transcend our self-actualization needs by “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…”

But all this is not to say that the concept of Self-Actualization is irrelevant. Back to the purple yarn. A favorite pair of characters in the Bible for me are the somewhat obscure Bezalel and Oholiab. Mentioned repeatedly from Exodus 31 through Exodus 38, these two men were created by God to be great at certain skills. They had literal God-given artistic talents, and they were summoned to use those gifts for the glory of God.

One example in Exodus 35:30-35 (NIV): “Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”

It struck me that God created and supernaturally imbued a human being with the specific skill to work masterfully with purple yarn, among many other things! Whatever the case, God wants us to do our best with the talents, resources, and opportunities that he gives us, most preferably for his glory. Colossians 3:23 (LEB) says, “Whatever you do, accomplish it from the soul, as to the Lord, and not to people.”

Watching the Rio Olympics has given me some key examples of people who have, for all intents and purposes, achieved Self-Actualization. Kerri Walsh-Jennings and her former Beach Volleyball partner Misty May-Treanor were undefeated champs, winning three consecutive gold medals, the best in the world at their sport. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, specializing and excelling in his sport of swimming. Usain Bolt? Fastest Man on Earth. Ashton Eaton? World’s Greatest Athlete. These are examples of people who practically could not do better in their given field. Looking outside of sports, we find artists such as Dale Chihuly or author Theodor Geisel – people who achieved the highest possible mastery and success in their niche. Of course, how much greater when Self-Actualizers can give the glory to God, as I have been humbled to see time and time again at the Rio games by competitors from around the world, all in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer.

But what about me? What is my area of expertise, my calling, my life’s mission? The skills and interests that God has given me, and the opportunities and pathways that he has led me down have brought me to this focus – psychotheology. The bridging of psychology and Christian theology is the niche that I have chosen to dedicate my life to. How will that be expressed? Certainly by writing. Probably by counseling. Maybe by teaching. I may be just a blip in the history of humanity and a speck in the magnitude of space, but I am an important blip; I am a speck known and loved by God.

And what about you? What is your niche? What is your calling? What is your message? What unique purpose has God created you for? Ask yourself this question: if you could be the undisputed expert or the absolute best in the world at one and only one thing, what would it be? If you could dedicate your life and excel in just one area, what would it be? What contribution to your family, your community, your country, or to human history will you make for the glory of God?

Why Christianity?

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In a previous post I discussed how I had arrived at subjective certainty about the existence of God. But in the grand cosmological buffet, there are many “higher powers” that one can choose from: Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, and even the Flying Spaghetti Monster embraced by oppositional-ironic “pastafarians.” How did I personally become convinced that the Christian God, attested to in the Old and New Testaments, is the “One True God” – the interpretation of the Divine that corresponds to reality?

1. To start, there is no denying that my upbringing plays a crucial role. I was raised in a Christian home. But what does that mean? Many who were raised in a “Christian” home and/or grew up “in the Church” have turned away from the Christian religion. And others that have had no exposure to Christianity as children come to believe in the Christian interpretation of God. I must say that I viewed the early Christian influences in my life as trustworthy sources, people who non-hypocritically lived out their faith on a daily basis. Their personal lives and behavior did not contradict what they taught or believed – quite the opposite. I had every reason to believe what they were saying when they testified about supernatural experiences.

2. God most profoundly revealed himself to me during a Christian church service, through a scripture found in the Christian Bible, presented by a Christian pastor. Despite the historical, contextually-bound logos of that passage of scripture, I was directly and personally spoken to as through a rhema. My life dramatically began a process of transformation from that moment. I often have described this experience as an “epiphany,” and it may be compared to the concept of enlightenment or a spiritual awakening. Christians would commonly use vocabulary to describe such an experience as “being born again” or “salvation” or “regeneration.”

3. The inward witness of the Holy Spirit continues to affirm the central truths of Christianity and thus further bolsters my faith. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16) and, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26).

4. The Christian worldview, as expressed (non-systematically) in the Bible, presents a framework for consistently, accurately, and without-contradiction interpreting all of reality, including the existence of and belief in other so-called gods. Christianity accounts for and explains the existence of other religions and even for non-religious persons. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality — and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.”

5. Various forms of revelation: ongoing personal experiences, the testimony of trustworthy individuals, and historical evidence all lend additional support to Christianity. The common, shared experiences of Christians around the planet and throughout history attested to in diaries, letters, biographies, sermons, verbal exchanges, and more, provide further grounding. I will seek to address the nature of revelation more in depth in future posts.

God Is

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Charting my theological beliefs must begin with my most basic presupposition: God is.

I could also say “God exists,” but I find “God is” to be a nice reflection of Exodus 3:14, where God reveals himself to Moses as “I AM.” French philosopher Descartes could only get as far as “I think, therefore I am.” God simply declares “I AM” without any qualifiers or adverbs!

As of 2010, according to the CIA World Factbook (!), only an estimated 9.66% of the world’s population were non-religious and only 2.01% were identified atheists. The vast majority of humans believe in some form of higher power or powers and so do I. My unbelieving friends believe that I believe. However, I would claim that I don’t just believe, but that I know that God exists. And this basic fact underlies all of reality.

Logically or semantically, you cannot know something that isn’t true. Although I initially believed in God because of the testimony of reliable people in my life, I came to know this experientially as God revealed himself to me. I have encountered God and am growing to know God more over time as our relationship continues. As Jesus is quoted in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice…”

I have known my oldest childhood friend since preschool. Nobody could convince me that he doesn’t exist. There is not an argument on earth that could erase from my mind the unmistakable relationship we have experienced. However, it would conceivably be possible for someone to show me a birth certificate or other information that revealed that the person I thought I knew so well was really somebody else entirely – that he had been misrepresented or had been misrepresenting himself this entire time. Likewise, I believe that individuals can experience supernatural encounters / phenomena but not necessarily arrive at accurate conclusions.

English theologian John Hick (1977, 7) talks about “simple verifiability” versus “complex verifiability.” If I want to verify that there are three apples in a basket, all I have to do is go over, look, and count them. Other things are not so easy, such as large-scale scientific hypotheses. I cannot walk over to the universe and check if Superstring Theory is true. “In such cases there may be increasing confirmation until the point of cognitive conclusiveness is reached. This is the point at which rational doubt as to the truth of p has been entirely excluded and at which the concepts of confirmation and verification coincide.”

Does a single observation suffice? Is progressive experience required? Is there a tipping point where uncertainty becomes belief, and belief becomes knowledge? I can state that I am subjectively certain that “God is.” I believe that one day this will be an objective, empirical certainty… that “every eye will see him” (Revelation 1:7).

But to quote C.S. Lewis, “I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology.”