This is an article from the May-June 2013 issue: Equipping the People of God for the Mission of God

Equipping the People of God for the Mission of God

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Equipping the People of God for the Mission of God

Seven years ago, I wrote an article for this magazine entitled “What DNA Are We (Really) Reproducing?” (Mission Frontiers, July 2006) In that article I questioned the ability of the American Evangelical Church to field adequately conceived and prepared missionaries without a major reorientation of the culture of the Evangelical Church. After seven additional years of reflection and time working with several more cohorts of missionary candidates (their agencies and their churches) I have to confess that my 2006 assessment was overly optimistic on more than one front. In the 2006 article I said; 

We will never be free of the problems that cultural Christianity breeds unless we deal with these problems at their root. If we are content to maintain and promote a mission strategy that accepts the status quo in North American Christian culture, we can assume the strong likelihood of either failure or recidivism in our training of missionaries. It is likely that North American Evangelicalism will need to reinvest or reinvent itself as a new people and a new culture for these problems to be completely eradicated.

When I wrote this I was hopeful that given time, the Evangelical church would make the necessary corrections in how it is the Church and how it does church. What I failed to take into consideration was how deeply ingrained the problematic values were to the culture of Evangelicalism. The culture of the American Church has developed over a considerable period of time. One of the battles that the Church has fought is to be in the world but not conformed to the world. Every human is in a constant process of being conformed to the world (and his culture) or being transformed and remade in the likeness of Christ (Romans 12). The most significant problems for the Church originate in our becoming lost in earthly cultures. The net effect is that we attribute our cultures’ values and beliefs to God and, in essence, reinvent God in our own image. This process has changed our reading of the Bible, our understanding of the gospel and our perception of our place in the world as the Church and our duties as the children of God. 

There are a number of biblical values that the western Church has contextualized to the point of syncretism. This syncretism has forced the Church further and further away from biblical patterns of behavior and has blinded us to how it has changed us as a people. In the process we have lost most of the belief-driven values that empower us to be a world changing force, a reflection of the eternal Word and a people that show the unmistakable presence of Jesus in our midst. We have sacrificed transformation for culturally-determined “sacred cow” practices.  

Sacred Cows that need to be turned into hamburger:

1. Worship services ad nauseum 

2. Preaching without teaching/training

3. Orthodoxy without orthopraxy

4. Proliferation of church property dedicated to no one but those already Christians

5. Education as sufficient preparation for ministry without character development and competence in disciple-making

6. Understanding the “gospel” as primarily an issue of salvation.

As we have worked with young men and women these deficiencies have become very notable and visible. American evangelicals do not understand “worship” as something we do to honor our relationship with God and that requires us to bring something to the presence of God as an act of worship. Quite often a worship service is an event that is viewed as either entertainment or an event from which we should get something. God is secondary if he is a factor at all. The idea that our lives should be seen as an act of worship is often something completely missed by the evangelical.

One of the more disturbing offenses is the idea that what is experienced as “preaching” in a service is somehow teaching or equipping the congregation for future ministry. The idea of teaching denotes that learning is going on or that the desired outcome of teaching is learning, where revealed truth is applied to life in obedience. There are a number of incompatibilities with calling what we do in our services as “teaching.” First the setting is all wrong. Our Sunday experience is a one-way communication process where congregants are passive listeners. If we were concerned about teaching it would need to be two-way with active participation from both sides of the conversation. But it is also possible to utilize the service to communicate a message that we come back to later in the week in small groups or other venues where two-way communication is possible. This would enable something approaching learning to take place. Since many, if not most, churches never take the message preached beyond the time it consumes in the service, most missionary candidates do not understand the difference between teaching and entertainment—I mean preaching. The missionary candidate is seldom shown disciple making or church planting, nor is he trained or apprenticed in these roles as he seeks to become a competent disciple-maker himself. 

The issue of orthodoxy being a litmus test of a healthy church and healthy believers is one of the historic developments that has been forgotten by the Church. Right thinking (orthodoxy) is always paired with right living or right behavior (orthopraxy) in the Scriptures. The understanding is that a changed allegiance from living in spiritual darkness to following Jesus will also bring with it a changing lifestyle. Historic records prove this point. Fox’s Book of Martyrs is full of such evidence. But with dramatic and, most often, unfortunate culture changes that took place in the Church from the second century onward, orthopraxy became less and less a virtue and signing statements of faith or ascribing to doctrinal statements became the measure of success. When this is paired with a lack of understanding or interest in discipleship, we end up with missionary candidates who know what is doctrinally accurate, but who do not know how to apply these values to their total existence in their own culture, to say nothing of how this would be done in another culture.

The American evangelical preoccupation with church buildings and massive building projects is primarily a problem in its lack of focus on serving others and particularly the have-nots of the world. The whole discussion of whether property and buildings are a good investments for the kingdom would change dramatically if our buildings were done to meet the needs of the larger community, particularly those suffering or in need. The Christian habit is to build to meet Christian needs and this preoccupation is most often the single most significant evidence of an earthly culture at work conforming the Church to the world instead of to Jesus. 

A more realistic understanding of our “edifice problem” is that in much of the unreached world, church buildings will be neither possible nor affordable and so the missionaries and the believers will need to conceive of a church system that exists and thrives in the absence of buildings. For American evangelical missionaries, this will require learning unlike any they have had to do up to this point, and the ability to think outside their own cultural box. The patterns and practices that they have learned as spectators at countless church services will be counterproductive in preparing them for cross-cultural disciple-making.

For many Christians the word “training” connotes education. I would never want to have be operated on by a surgeon who had never been to medical school, but neither would I like to be the first person on which  that a surgeon, fresh out of medical school, operated. The medical profession is a good example from which to draw. A person desiring to be a surgeon needs to jump through a fair number of educational hoops in order complete his or her undergraduate degree. Then, the grueling first year of medical school happens where the intention seems to be to either torture the student into withdrawing or hardening the survivor to the reality of his or her  profession. After three years of medical school, the student must intern for a year during which he or she is discipled by a more experienced doctor. This is followed by three or more years serving as a resident. Medicine is one of the few professions where mentoring or discipleship is a common and indispensable practice. The pertinent question is why it is seen as normal and necessary to train and mentor doctors so meticulously and yet something as important and as complicated as communicating the gospel and living spiritual truth in a cross-cultural setting should be treated so cavalierly? 

Often the only requirement to serve as a missionary is to pass some psychological tests, be able to raise financial support and attend the mission agency’s one or two week indoctrination session. After these cursory preparations, the person can report and in many situations, if they are serving on a team, no one on the team has more experience in disciple-making than they do, including the team leader! One more facet of this problem is that many missionary candidates have significant and deep personal issues that need to be dealt with before entering the pressure cooker of foreign cross-cultural service. When they do not remediate these issues ahead of deployment, the pressures, spiritual warfare and interpersonal complexities of life often turn them into casualties and attrition statistics. In the current state of the Christian world it is incomprehensible why any mission agency would not prepare their candidates thoroughly. Should not missionary candidates have proven their ability to make disciples and plant churches before they are sent to do so cross-culturally?

Lastly, we come to the word “gospel”. What does this mean? For the American Evangelical Christian, it is most often associated with the idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection as an act of penal substitution for the sins of the world (or some subset of this depending on your theology). In a recent book, Scot McKnight describes the situation this way:

Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples. Those two words—decision and disciples—are behind this entire book. Evangelism that focuses on decisions short circuits and—yes, the word is appropriate—aborts the design of the gospel; while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles.1

In the world of the Muslim sheikh, Buddhist priest or Hindu guru decisions are neither individual nor do they lead to visible transformation in society. The world outside the kingdom of God awaits the King and his kingdom that defeats sin, suffering and death once and for all. Most statistics related to conversion from these mission fields say that Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus become followers of Jesus because of the noticeably different and changed lives of the missionaries with whom they have relationships. In spiritual terms, they see Jesus and do what they have been meant to do before the foundation of time; they fall on their knees and confess, “My Lord and my God.” But what must happen next in their life is discipleship. No one can call himself a follower of Jesus who is not being changed into his likeness. This is true in Asia, Africa and the Middle-East and it is true in North America. 

The most significant issue that we face in preparing men and women for the mission field is that American Christians are not primarily representative of the biblical idea of being a follower of Jesus and they do not embrace enough of the beliefs and values associated with Jesus. What the American Christian missionary represents is a culturally conformed church that will unwittingly reproduce its own culture and communicate its values as the gospel and as central to being a follower of Jesus. Across the world this has led Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus to believe that being a follower of Jesus means becoming a western Christian, and most want no part of this. In the course of this author’s almost thirty years of working with missionary candidates I have found that the majority of those men and women required major reconstruction of their understanding of reality, and very frankly, our efforts were not always successful. Matthew 28 tells us to go and make disciples of all ethne. We need to thoroughly rethink our methods and practices of pre-field training of missionary candidates with a focus on effective disciple-making, because if we do not, if discipleship happens at all, it will be to make disciples of American evangelical culture and not of Jesus and the kingdom of God.

  1. McKnight, Scot (2011-09-06). The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (p.18). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.


Great article and insights Fran. 

I also believe we need a major reorientation of the “Evangelical” church in America if we are going to see good missionaries sent out from the Western world again.  I still believe in “from all nations to all nations”, especially to those people groups who still have little to no access to the Gospel. 

I do however see great signs of hope within the sub culture of the evangelical world.  The “missional” type movement and their emphasis on discipleship gives me hope. 

Young leaders like Chan and Platt are leading the way and giving constructive voice to how we can move forward.  In just two days these men reached 80k people in 100 countries through one simple web cast as they simply taught from the scriptures on what it truly means to be a disciple of Jesus.  They bunked all of the traditional American “churchianity” you mention and called people to radical reorientation.

Conferences like Verge and Exponential are gathering thousands of church leaders in America and talking about what it really means to make disciples.  Local churches like Austin Stone and their “100 People Network” are inspiring other local churches to train and send people out from discipleship emphasizing environments.  The 24/7 prayer movements have enormous potential as well as they are starting to consider the unreached.  Recently, over 26k gathered and were challenged to start praying for the Joshua Project unreached people group of the day.

For sure there is a lot that needs to be reoriented, but I think we have lots of reason for renewed hope too.

I appreciated this article, having served both the church here and in SE Asia. I don’t think the problems mentioned concerning American Christians are limited to Americans, but since the U.S. church has been greatly involved in spreading the faith for 200+ years, we have also spread our versions of it. For example, in SE Asia where I served it seemed churches often reflected the worst of what they imported (we exported) from the U.S. church.

Thus, while I blame very ignorante, and often arrogant American leaders who travel to Asia to “reproduce” their American success, I still maintain we must hold local leaders responsible also. Churches and Christians in non-American lands will be MOST empowered not when American missionaries get it right, but when they take the initiative to purify or reform themselves. The goal should be for them to embrace their historic faith all the way back to the first century and the beginning of time, not through the lens of American Christian “success” and missionary activity. Maybe American missionaries can help a small amount with this, but more likely this must spring up from within Christian leaders of their own people group.   

There is a lot that could not be covered in one article and a lot more that needs to be considered as we move forward. I think the primary problem we have to contend with is our western church culture.

In my experience and study, I find it very interesting that history and the contemporary Church seem to simply assume that the configuration of what we call “the church” is appropriate and adequate. It is as though everyone believes the church building, pastor’s pulpit, Sunday school room, youth ministry, children’s ministry etc, just dropped from heaven into our laps from Jesus and the Apostles. No one that I am aware of has noted that all of these constructs are cultural inventions that begin in a Roman world that did not believe in the idea that “every member is a minister.” In fact, as far as I can tell, the complete system of the parish church was meant more as a fortress to protect dumb sheep that would never be anything other than dumb sheep.

This understanding of the Body of Christ is completely counter to the Jesus teachings and the teachings of the Apostles. Our problem begins in this quadrant. Our understanding of “the Church” is a vaguely contextualized Roman variant of what began hatching out of the Roman cultural egg in the late 2nd century.

I understand your thoughts, Eric, about the national church’s responsibility to reconstruct something that addresses the problems, but how will they do this? The majority of the church leaders from he two thirds world have been trained in western seminaries or by western organizations. Who from those institutions will help them to realize that they need to feel the freedom to innovate structurally and walk away from western patterns of attitude and action? In large part this will also be true because they cannot walk away from that which they are. The leaders of the Church around the world are often more western than we are and how will anyone fix that?

A missionary in Africa told us that most of the Africans who enroll in his seminary cannot graduate because they cannot meet the language expectations (Greek and Hebrew). He was asked who demands the Greek and Hebrew be that important in training men for ministry in Africa? He said, the African national church leaders in demand it and they learned that it was indispensable from us!

The entire construct we call Christianity is a mess that we began making 1800 years ago. As hopeful as men like Francis Chan and David Platt may sound, every decade since the 1950’s has had men exactly like Platt and Chan and what changed? We cannot evolve the church to where it needs to be. We desperately need the wind of the Spirit to blow through our dry old dead cultural bones and breath new life into the Body that belongs to Jesus not the western church.

gandolf256 is francis Patt!

Fran, I empathize with your feeling that nothing has changed in 30 years and that cultural patterns have been institutionalized that hinder us from doing the very things that the church is to be about.  Still I do find encouraging things happening around the world and even here in the USA.

Progress is slow though. It is more measurable in centuries than decades.  None the less we should not settle for the status quo. The rapid change we see happening in our own culture may provide an opportunity for the church to leap ahead in this area as well.

For those that 1)see this cultural reality, 2) have studied the scriptures and 3) hear the call of God to speak to the people about it, there is only one thing to do—obey.  And to do this whether the people hear and respond or not.

Thank you for being faithful in this for the past thirty years.  The work has not been in vain because there are those that have been impacted. I know a few, myself at least.  Now is the time for new champions to be raised to plead the cause of those outside the reach of the church.  Maybe even from those reading this.


I agree with most of your reply, especially that part about “third-world” leaders being trained in the West. It is probably much less than the “majority” but it is significant.

A few years ago I did a quantitative study of where international students ended up after graduating form the seminary I went to. 50% stayed in the U.S. typically pastoring churches of their ethnic people, the other 50% returned home. More interesting though was to find that the motivation for some to move to the U.S. and attend the school was more academic and professional than ministerial. In other words, they (especially some ethnicities) did not enroll in the seminary because there was no training in their home nation, but because American theological education was more prestigious (and rigorous). BUT, this is not a Christian problem, it is a cultural issue. It has to do with how cultural norms are or are not accepted in the ethnicity’s Christianity.

In some cultures, churches/Christians adopt cultural norms (models of success, significance, credentials, etc.) that churches/Christians in other cultures don’t, and vis-versa. In the same way, some churches/Christians will soak up aspects from the cross-cultural missionary’s bent, while churches/Christians in other cultures will not. To complicate things more, often it will appear that a method was adopted but under the covers its has a different meaning. This was the case in my cross-cultural experience.

All-in-all, I don’t think it is productive to assume that the reform of one cultural’s Christianity will equal a purer form of the faith in other cultures that receive their cross-cultural workers. What we have is a human, not American problem.   

Thanks Fran for your highly relevant observations and comments.  I agree totally but would add (from my 40 years in missions and mission related arenas such as education and business) that we may have to re-engineer our Biblical hermeneutic to include perspectives which will not align well with the “church” as we understand it in America.  Things like:
1. We must have a greater emphasis on “blessing the nations” and less on “conversion”  (See Mark Russell in “The Biblical Entrepreneur”).
2.  Realize that Jesus never said for us to plant churches and we need to stop pursuing that goal.  Every believer (which American churches do not readily believe) is to “make disciples”.  (See Dale Losch’s book “A Better Way”, available on kindle and hard copy).
3.  Outside of a great revival, the only way forward is for every believer to catch the simple thought that he/she can disciple those in their community, work place, family, school etc.  I just returned from Asia where one “BAM” business owner with over one hundred employees most of whom are Jesus followers because “the way you live your life and how you treat other people is a reflection of who God is” and that attracts people to Jesus.
4.  How did we get to be such believers in the Sacred-Secular Dichotomy in America?  People live their Monday morning lives differently than their Sunday lives, what Spada and Scott call “Monday Morning Atheists” in the book by the same name.
5.  Clearly for me the hope of reaching the least reached in the next generation is in the two-thirds world church.  In general they have not bifurcated the world; they understand the spiritual as integrated into the whole of life and they do not carry the same baggage we do.
6.  Another good book I wish people would read is “The Integrated Life” by Ken Eldred.

Short line:  Thanks Fran - a great “on target” article.  Have you read Losch’s book yet?

Thanks Larry! Your points are all well taken. In particular, #2. No one ever said it was the job of Jesus Body to go and plant churches. No where in Scripture does it ever say that Jesus came to make people Christians. In essence, there is a clash of Kingdoms seeing the Kingdom of the church doing battle and at odds with the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “You can’t serve two masters…” Christians now must choose. Whom do we serve? Are we Christians or Followers of Jesus? If it is the church then that choice will be at the expense of our relationship with Jesus. If it is Jesus, then “church” must do as John the Baptist understood. It must decrease and Jesus must increase. But I would add one caveat to your point number 5 as I answered Eric. All the wonderful fruit of the Spirit that comes in waves from the two-thirds world will die within a generation or two of ripening if they make the same mistake that virtually all other movements have made hitherto. They cannot send their leaders to the west for “training.” Most (I say most because there may be some institutions that are trying to change, but I am not familiar with any that have turned the corner on the issue of which Kingdom they promote.) of our training institutions are the gate-keepers of the Kingdom of the church and as such, they are toxic. If the two thirds world continues to send their young leaders to the west to be “trained.” Their movements will devolve into the same messes we see in the west now.

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