Several years ago my wife and I travelled to Madrid, to speak at a conference designed for missionary families from America living in and around Spain. I remember trying to keep my expectations low as I hurried to put together messages for an audience about whom I knew almost nothing. It continually rolled through my head that, while I was the guest speaker, they were the experts. What I knew about living in a foreign country, mastering a foreign language, and raising children in a foreign culture was equivelent to my knowledge of microbiology. So, while I labored to deliver something useful and encouraging to them, it became increasingly apparent that I would come home with much more than I gave away.
During lunch one day I sat with missionary team leaders from several different cities. As the dishes were cleared away, I took opportunity to benefit from one of Europe's best customs - the long, long meal. No one was in a hurry to leave. Coffee was poured, cookies provided, and a fruitful 4 hour discussion began. It all started with what I thought was a very simple question. In fact, I hadn't thought of asking it before then. All I wanted to do was start something, and I just used the first generic thing that popped into my head:
"What 3 things do you think the churches in America need to know about missionary work?"
The answers that these men gave during those hours were more useful, more insightful, and have come to be more remembered, than some of my seminary classes. Here's #1:
#1: We wish churches in America would do "church" the way we do missions.
Here's what they meant: As missionaries, their focus is actually fairly simply. They plan their days, invest their energy, and focus their lives on this simple strategy. Make contact with unbelievers in the course of your everyday lives; invest time in turning contacts into friends; labor throught the Word and prayer to see God transform friends into believers; teach and mold believers into disciples, who then start the cycle all over again, making contact with unbelievers in their world.
I found myself at first thinking "that's nothing new." But then I was hit by the troubling reality that this simple strategy no longer defines most churches in America. We have to admit it: we're more into maintenance than mission. We've redefined success in terms of bodies, bucks, and buildings. And in our rush to gain notoriety and acclaim and acceptance in this hectic, market-driven world, we've forgotten that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
So, what do we do? I believe we need to ask ourselves some very serious questions. Start with this one: Is your city any better because your church is there? Are your neighbors any better because they live next to someone in whom the Spirit of God dwells?
If one of my new missionary friends moved into my neighborhood, here's what he would do. First, he'd figure out a way to meet his neighbors. Then he would consciously find ways to connect with them. Maybe it would be helping with a yard project, or talking sports, or shooting baskets with the kids. And he would invest in them as people, as those whose lives he was genuinely interested in. He wouldn't see them only as potential notches on the gun, but as real people, with real needs, made in the image of God, who needed the forgiveness that is found only in Jesus. And he would understand that relationships take time, a lot of time, and he would refuse to take shortcuts. Then, over time, he would live out the Gospel with his new friends, without being ashamed, but also without arrogance or ultimatum. He would try to include his new friends in the family of God, knowing that his brothers and sisters in Christ were neither ashamed of the Gospel, nor afraid of the unbelieving world. He would pray and pray that the Word and the Spirit would do what he couldn't do; transform a friend into a brother in Christ. And, if in the providence of God, that happened, he would embrace his new family member and lovingly walk alongside him as he experienced the joys of discovering the truths of God's Word. And then he'd help his brother see the joy of starting the cycle all over again.
So, here's the point. My neighborhood doesn't need a missionary to move in. And, neither does yours, if you love Jesus. God has already moved us in. The first thing churches in America need to know, they actually already know. They just need to re-know it, and come to understand that living a missional life isn't a risk, its a privilege.