I recently had an article published in Reach Beyond’s magazine. Here it is for your perusal.
Two ships sit in the harbor. Both tall-masted, with sails unfurled. So alike, so different.
The one to the north is the HMS Merchantman, a merchant ship laden with valuable cargo. Anchored to the south, an exploratory vessel, the HMS Discovery. Can you see them? One carrying goods, the other carrying curiosity. Hold them a moment in your mind’s eye, then consider…
How might these two ships be equipped – one for commerce, and the other for discovery?
How might their itineraries differ?
Who would you expect to find on each? What skills would be needed in each endeavor?
How might dinner at the captain’s table go on each ship? Who would attend? What might the dialogue be?
If you were to spend a year on each, how different would those years be?
Narratives as vessels for thinking
We like to believe that we deal in facts, but in point of fact, we deal in stories. We are physiologically hard-wired to process facts by building stories to make sense of them. Narratives are the ships our thoughts sail in, the operating systems of our minds, and we can’t think without them. They make astounding cognition possible. But they also limit the places our thoughts can go, and if left unexamined, they can force us to see the world through crippling lenses.
Societies do this, too. Our most important processes are carried out in stories, so that our values can be transmitted undamaged. These processes (e.g. marriage, passage into adulthood, leading and following) are similar across the species, but the way we do it differs from culture to culture. Hollywood and Bollywood tell very different stories about exactly the same things, and this is why.
Cultures often have a central narrative, and members of that culture are rarely aware of it. These stories are usually morally neutral, but when a cultural narrative impedes our ability to obey Jesus, it requires critique, and an alternative narrative must be found.
We do mission inside stories, and sometimes those stories limit and warp our mission. It’s no accident that the Crusades happened during an era driven by feudalism. Conquest was the story, and so the sword drove the narrative of mission. Likewise, during an era of unprecedented Imperial British reach, we should not be surprised to find Colonialism driving the mission narrative of the day. People didn’t always shed blood and subjugate continents motivated by evil. Sometimes they were blinded by their narrative. An unexamined narrative will always misguide us.
Occasionally, an individual or a small group caught on and went off script, opting for a different story to live in. Francis of Assisi is an excellent example. Rattled by the dissonance between the gospels and the narrative on offer, Francis took off his clothes and the story they were made for, stood apart and began building a better story.
Perhaps the loudest voice in the missiological dialogue right now is the American voice, and the dominant American cultural narrative is Capitalism. It’s in everything we do, much of what we say, and in the majority of our assumptions about one another’s motives. It should not surprise us to find, then, that the narrative we do mission in is a story about marketing Jesus. Let me show you what I mean.
In the bible, pastors are skilled, gifted heads of believing households. In North America, pastors are CEOs of charitable institutions. The books on church leadership are business leadership books, baptized with Bible words. Churches compete for customers, and when income no longer meets overhead, churches close. In the New Testament, all the believers in a city were the church in that city. In the US, a church is where you shop for a spiritual product.
When I was in seminary, Coca Cola was a favorite tool of mission mobilizers. They would show a picture of a shaman somewhere in Papua drinking a Coke, and cry, “We have had the Great Commission for 2,000 years! How did Coke get there before us?” The analogy is totally irrelevant, but we all responded. Why? Because we thought of the gospel as a product we needed to deliver to a market. That’s the only way that analogy holds.
Once we get “over there”, we set out to find the felt needs in our communities. Usually, we walk right past our neighbors to do that. We don’t live deeply in communities; we study them, to find out how best to pitch our product, and we pitch. We talk a lot, and we don’t ask many questions. Jesus asked a lot of questions. So if we don’t do it like him, who’s doing it wrong?
If stuff starts to happen, we measure it. I was a scientist, once. I measured things, to learn about them. But we usually measure results to validate our efforts, our callings, ourselves. We rarely measure how our disciples effect change in their communities. We measure numbers and speed of spread. Market penetration.
We write mission statements and vision statements and value statements, just like Jesus taught us to. Except he didn’t. We learned that from the business world, so whose disciples are we?
Listen, I think business is good. I love Business As Mission. I hate Mission As Business.
So, here’s an alternative narrative to try out: Mission, not as spiritual entrepreneurism, but as spiritual exploration.
Let’s imagine again. This time, imagine a parallel universe, just like ours, with one exception. In this world, the Western mission narrative for the last three hundred years hasn’t been delivering Jesus to needy markets, but rather discovering Jesus in the world and helping others see him, too. How might mission happen differently in this story?
Mobilizers wouldn’t ask people to “take Jesus to places he isn’t, yet.” Rather, they might invite people to go discover Jesus in the many places he hasn’t yet been sighted. He’s always been there. It’s just that the not-yet-engaged can’t see him.
Proclamation and disciple making would be less about delivering a message and downloading content into people. Rather, the preacher’s task would be to look for burning bushes, evidences of Christ at play, within and without. If I discover Jesus at work in my heart, I proclaim that, and when people have questions, I answer them from my own first hand experience of Jesus and the gospels. Like Peter moving from his contemplative vision on a rooftop to opening the Kingdom to the Gentiles under Cornelius’s roof.
When I discover Jesus at work in a lost community, I proclaim that, and I invite them to see that, too, using the Scriptures in tandem with the Spirit, to discover Christ’s invitation and an appropriate response. Like Paul in Athens at the statue of the unknown god.
Leadership would require a different skill set. We would need to release control of outcomes and learn to sail with the Wind. We would need perceptive skills like listening prayer, collective discernment, and reflective obedience. Leaders would have to become good at hearing the voice of the Spirit in their community, and then working with it until there’s enough clarity to act. Like the prophets and teachers in Antioch, the Jerusalem Council, and Paul’s team hearing the Macedonian Call.
I think I’d walk around differently in that universe. Instead of trudging through a world of darkness and hostility, trying to force a product on people who don’t want it, I could walk free through a world of beauty (with its dangers, toils and snares), seeking out the burning bushes, the whispers of God’s good intentions, declaring them as I boldly go. Playing hide and seek with God like it’s my job, except He’s not hiding from those who look.
We need a new boat
The Merchantman has taken us as far as it can. We need the Discovery. The unengaged need explorers, not marketers. Jesus is nearer to them than their skin, but the god of this world has blinded their eyes to his glory. We, however, can see him.
And I want to see all the ways Jesus makes beauty and justice grow from chaos and corruption. I want to hear His myriad names in as many tongues, watching Him reveal Himself to peoples who have never beheld glory, in households and neighborhoods who have had Him burning their bushes for years, but have never seen. I want to navigate the world, not as a traveling salesman, but as a peregrine, an explorer, witnessing restoration as I help to bring it forth along the way.
And I know I’m not alone.
Let’s go see what we see.