Mobilization on the Brink of the Next Millennium
"How do we mobilize this generation for Christ and His Great Commission?"
"It isn't fair!" exploded Aaron, a 22-year old who had been radically redeemed from addictions to drugs and alcohol only one year earlier. "How could it be that all those unreached people must go to hell?"
It was an incredible weekend of adventure. The group of young men from our church were on a mountain biking trip in Elijay, Georgia.
There's nothing like the dying sparks of a campfire wafting up into the crisp night air (and the trip over my handle bars earlier that day which resulted in a few cracked ribs) to turn one's thoughts toward eternity. Spurred on by the raw questions of guys like Aaron, we spoke into the night about the lost, the unreached, the exclusivity of the Gospel and the desperate need for more people to go.
This experience with a group made up mostly of Xers brought into sharp focus the question that has been burning its way into my soul:
"How do we mobilize this generation for Christ and His Great Commission?"
After being involved in mobilization ministry for six years, my instinct tells me that this is the question that must be addressed. The answer, however, may be more simple than we think.
I believe that mobilizing this generation is not that far removed from how Jesus did it. Following a few basic biblical principles can be the key that unlocks our ability to influence those around us to radical commitment in following Christ and wholehearted obedience to the Great Commission.
By way of preface, the intent of this article is not to provide a "how to" on mobilization. Rather, it will provide some simple principles, the pitfalls to effectively applying those principles and some suggested protections against the pitfalls.
Principle 1: Jesus is Lord of the Harvest.
Really? Duh?! Everyone knows that. I suspect if anything in this article would be cut before going to print, this statement would. So if you are reading it, write the editor and say, "Thanks." Above all else, we must get back to and stay with the basicsthe most important of which is the supremacy of God in missions, as the sub-title to John Piper's book, Let the Nations be Glad suggests.1
For churches and agencies, it seems that now may be the time to return to this most central and only significant theme that Jesus taught regarding mobilization: The harvest is so great, but the workers are so few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send out more workers for his fields. (Matt. 9:38, NLT) Before we look further, it may be most appropriate to stop and ask God: "Lord, before I even continue reading this article, am I pausing long enough to ask you for the laborers?"
Pitfall: It is an assumption that we understand and apply this basic truth. But having been in the mobilization world for awhile, it seems this may be the most critical missing element.
Protection: Commit to pray for laborers as much as we strategize about mobilization.
Principle 2: Meet them where they are.
This could be rewritten more appropriately as: "Meet them where they are."
Let me confess an event that the Lord has used to bring home this point to me. In 1993-94, I was the summer team coordinator for our mission. I had set a goal to see us get to 100 people that year, twice as many as the year before, and we were well on our way. It was a thrilling year of recruitment and my heart was racing with excitement.
Then one day I met Sue who wanted to join a summer team ministry. Yes, another one! I thought. In talking with her, we seemed to have just the right opportunity and she too was excited. After spending significant time in prayer, she called two weeks later and said she felt that God was asking her to stay home for that summer. Earlier in the day I had received calls from others wanting to cancel as well and I was discouraged. I tried to convince Sue this could be the enemy, or her own fears, and asked her to pray for another week. She assured me she had already prayed, but I was persuasive and she agreed. When I hung up, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that I had allowed the goal to supersede my concern for God's leading in her life. I called her back, apologized, and she forgave. She never went, at least not with us. This illustrates the first pitfall to meeting them where they are.
Pitfall # 1: Organizational objectives over personal sensitivity.
Most of us involved in mobilization do not lack in vision and we love to share our vision and opportunities our organization has awaiting young "recruits." And let me be the first to say there is nothing wrong with sharing our visionwe must have one and we must share it often. The danger lies in primarily viewing people as a means to our end or another cog in the machine to produce our desired result.
We can so easily miss His purpose for our interaction and deal with them in a very impersonal way. If we have not taken the time to discover who they are, what God is doing in their lives, their dreams, desires and aspirations, then from their point of view, we might as well be sharing our vision with the wall, because we know as much about the wall as we do themmaybe even more.
In No God But God: The Idols of Our Age, edited by Os Guiness, Alonzo McDonald warns against what he calls the self-perpetuation "idol:"
Concern for the self-perpetuation of the institution and the preservation of the status quo is the greatest idol that any institution will face. Needless to say, the continuation of a good organization is good and right. There is no virtue in failure. But the legitimate desire for self-perpetuation is similar to the desires for profitability and happiness. These are not achieved through our direct actions. Rather, they are by-products of other endeavors that keep an organization vibrant and forward-looking, contributing more than it expects in return. When continuing existence is sought directly as an end rather than as a by-product of serving wider needs, the dynamics of [this kind of] idolatry lead to deception and disaster for the organization.2
The "contribution" that must be made in mobilization ministry is taking time to really connect with the individual.
Protection: Consistently ask: Am I really in this for their good first, as opposed to meeting my organizational, departmental, or personal goals in mobilization?
"Concern for the self-perpetuation of the institution and the preservation of the status quo is the greatest idol that any institution will face."
Alonzo L. McDonald
Pitfall # 2: Inflexible guidelines for candidacy.
As a twelve year old boy, lying in bed on a hot summer night in Virginia, I prayed a very real and heartfelt prayer: "Lord, save me." I did not understand issues like the virgin birth, innerrancy, and the Trinity, but I did understand that Jesus died for my sin and if I asked Him to save me, He would. And He did! Hallelujah! God deals with us in great simplicity and clarity. In grace, He accepts us where we are and transforms our lives. It is a great example for us to remember as we seek to help others.
Jim and Karen were studying in a one year graduate program when I met them. Karen had already been overseas for a two-year term, but Jim was brand new to the idea of missions. Typical of most of us when we initially sense God's leading, we have a lot more questions than answers and Jim was no different. They were married and soon after moved so Jim could attend seminary. Though our organization does not require a graduate degree, we do encourage it for people like Jim. But he had no overseas exposure and his ministry experience was still minimal here in the States because he came to Christ later in life.
We could have simply said: "Oh well, brother, when you meet our requirements then let us know." But on a visit to their home, I asked them to consider joining me on a short-term trip to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. Jim, being the "thinker" of the two had even more questions about money, time off for Karen's job, how he would make up for time away from work and seminary. But they prayed, and went for the month-long trip. During that trip, God burdened their heart for an unreached people group of 2 million. They returned and hung a huge map of Indonesia in their living room as a constant reminder of God's leading and their need to pray. They became involved in ministry in their church. Today, Jim and Karen are career missionaries, toughing it out on a very difficult field.
Protection: As influencers of those available to go to the harvest fields of this generation, we must ask ourselves :
"How can I meet this person where they are?" before I ask how they measure up to my organization's guidelines. The guidelines must be dealt with, but usually not in the first conversation.
"Am I (or my organization) asking too much too quickly?"
Pitfall # 3: Not taking the time to meet them where they are.
We can never assume the person we are talking with is ready to go, but we will not know unless we take the time to get to know them. I'm not suggesting that we must spend hours talking with them, but it does take time to get to know them well enough to counsel them appropriately. Anyone working with missionary candidates or missionaries realizes that they are not super-human creatures able to leap major barriers in a single bound. They are ordinary people.
Some come from solid Christian homes, others from fragmented homes. Some are hurting, some are strong. Some have cross-cultural experience, others none. Some have ThM's, some have never heard of a ThM. Some are ready to blaze a new path to a specific people group, some are more interested in the team they will join. Some have been extremely damaged by their own sin or sin committed against them. Some have supportive parents, others do not. The point: They are all unique and deserve our attention.
Protection: Formulate a list of general open ended questions that will serve as a routine discussion guide in getting to know the potential candidate.
Principle 3: Help them get where God wants them to be.
It would be nice if we could put together a conference, have gripping pictures, moving videos, give an invitation and see thousands of Xers coming forward ready to make a long-term commitment to missions. But anyone who has worked with this generation would read that statement and say with sarcasm, "Rrriiight." This generation needs to know that we are genuinely concerned about them, who they are, how they are progressing in their worship of and relationship with Jesus, and how He is leading them at this point in their lives.
This generation is ready to commit to what they understand God's will to be and to a cause that is worthy.
Once there is a basic relationship established, this generation, as all who have gone before, stand ready to be challenged. A recent discussion with Brad Jones, Interim Director of the Office of Student Outreach at Wheaton College, helps us understand more about this generation's readiness to be challenged. He mentioned that the involvement in the World Christian Fellowship has increased over the last few years. I thought, Wow! God is really up to something, and it seems He is. But his next comment was thrilling: "The deeper we have gone in challenging the students with the cost of discipleship and world evangelization, the more they are coming." This flies in the face of the stereotypical understanding that this generation is lacking in commitment. This generation is ready to commit to what they understand God's will to be and to a cause that is worthy.
However, we must understand there is a time and place for challenging people to move to the next step. They will accept the challenge to be involved when the time is right for them.
Pitfall: Trying to get them where we (as an organization) may want them to be without being sensitive to where He may want them (either geographically or in type of ministry). In another day, this process was called "placement."
Joe and Barb were frustrated. They felt God leading them to a "closed country" and every organization they talked with said "no" to the idea. Many had a slot for them on another field but few, if any, were willing to listen to what Joe and Barb felt was God's leading in their lives. This couple was well above average in their readiness to take on such a task. He was an MK and she was from a strong Christian family. Their education and cross-cultural experience was superb. They had done their homework and research, and were ready to go. But why would so few listen? Finally, someone did and now they have finished their first term in this "closed country" and are returning for their second. This true example is not used to say that churches or mission organizations should always accept "wild ideas" but that we should listen and seek to facilitate His leading in their lives.
Protection: Listen first, challenge second. It is only after we have listened that we should feel the freedom to challenge. Then we can do it with enthusiasm and passion within the context of how God is leading the individual as affirmed by their local sending body.
The campfire has died, my ribs are healing, and the flame of passion for the unreached is just beginning for those on our bike trip. There are 67.9 million "Aarons" who are part of Generation X. As we continue to seek the living Lord of the harvest, may He grant us the courage to pave a new path for mobilizing this generation and their churches by caring enough to meet them where they are and pointing them to the only One who truly deserves their devotion.