The Very Grown-up Work of Incarnation

Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is our head, into Christ. – Ephesians 4:15

Becky Stephen, Senior Director of Field Ministry at The Mission Society, tells a remarkable story of what it means to live as a mature follower of Jesus.

Julie and Mark, with whom Becky partners in ministry, are missionaries to India. Julie is an amazing woman. She is a gifted teacher and leader. Mark was a math teacher in the U.S. But then God called Julie and Mark to leave their work here to go live in north India to reach Muslims there. By all accounts, they were clearly called. God provided. He settled them in the perfect neighborhood and gave them strategies for becoming part of the Muslim community in that city. On the surface, everything seemed great.

It is great … for Mark, who daily takes his motorcycle down the Muslim alleyways, where he’s greeted by everyone, invited into shops for tea, who has now built enough trust with this community that the religious leaders are calling him to religious events and into spiritual conversations.

But it is a different story for Julie. She has also been called to live like Christ in that community, but for her that means wearing the headdress of a Muslim woman. She is mostly confined to her home. She has no status as a teacher or leader. In fact, in that society, she is not valued at all.

As she tells Julie’s story, Becky says, “Unless you’ve experienced it, it may be difficult to comprehend the deep identity crisis this evokes or the painful surrender this requires. It’s a struggle to daily accept the humiliation of the incarnation in this cultural context. But God continues to do His work in and through Julie in the invisible world that Indian women live in. And it’s in this humble, hidden place that Julie is experiencing Jesus as she gathers small groups of women together to study the Bible.”

These are women who get what it feels like to be invisible in a way I couldn’t even begin to fathom. Julie invites these women into her home and she shares her story and how Jesus has healed her and is healing her and her story is bringing healing to other women.

And her story stops me in my tracks. Because her life is not about building big things that draw big crowds. Her life isn’t even about doing things that make sense. The only way she can do this is because she knows who she is and whose she is.

This is very grown-up work, this work of being the incarnation. It isn’t for children. It isn’t work for people who’d rather focus on the gaps and use them as an excuse to avoid the work of sanctification.

Julie’s story inspires me. She has taken the frustration that breeds in that gap between who we are and who we want to be, and she has turned it into a holy frustration and a broken heart for those who don’t yet know. Rather than focusing on her own inconveniences, she has turned her frustration into a broken heart for the women of India who are not safe, known, heard.

This is what is means to be sanctified.

This is what it means to grow up in every way into Him.

This is how truth becomes love.

This is incarnation.

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Grace is not for wimps.

C. S. Lewis said you’ll either love Jesus or you’ll hate him. There is no in-between. “… Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.”

That choice creates a tension that causes some to build crosses and draw swords and fire guns at people who fall at his feet in worship.

Christianity claims more followers — and more martyrs — than any other religion.  Consider these stats*:

  • More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined.
  • Currently over 100 million Christians are being persecuted worldwide.
  • North Korea continues to be the worst country in the world for persecution.
  • Open Doors (a watchdog and advocacy organization for persecuted Christians) estimates that more than 12,500 Christians have been killed in religion related violence in northern Nigeria between 2006 and 2014, including one whole village that was massacred. Boko Haram violence has claimed most of those lives.
  • It is also estimated that Boko Haram related violence has displaced more than 500,000 Christians in northern Nigeria.
  • In 2015, Islamic State released a video showing what is believed to be the execution of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya. Subtitles refer to the men as “worshippers of the cross belonging to the hostile Ethiopian church.”
  • Iran’s parliament believes Muslims who change their faith should be put to death.
  • In India, up to 70,000 Christians in Orissa have been forced to flee their homes in riots.
  • In Indonesia, in the two years between 2000-2002, Muslims slaughtered 10,000 Christians.
  • In Vietnam a new law restricts the growth of Christian churches and violence is on the rise.
  • Nepal has laws in place to restrict religion; a constitutional change last year bans all religious conversions.
  • Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka all have laws restricting religion.
  • Half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
  • Under Islamist pressure, Coptic Christians in Egypt are being forced from their homes.
  • A February video showed Islamic State killing 20 Coptic Christians from Egypt and one Ghanaian.
  • By 2012, most of the 80,000 Christians in Homs, Syria had been ‘cleansed’ from their homes.
  • In Europe, persecution is becoming a reality through “equality directives.” In 2011, France passed a law banning prayer in public streets — a reaction against the growing Muslim population.
  • Seventy percent of the world’s population lives in a religiously intolerant environment.
  • Christians are the most persecuted religious group worldwide. An average of at least 180 Christians around the world are killed each month for their faith.
  • Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Christ.
  • In 41 of the 50 worst nations for persecution, Christians are being persecuted by Islamic extremists.

The moral of all these stories is simple: Grace is not for wimps. Grace forces us to choose. It isn’t weak or soft. It comes in truth, in power, in supernatural connections. It creates wonders and signs and it offends people who have no room for the supernatural in their lives.

You can’t kill it, though it is intent on destroying everything in you that won’t fit in the Kingdom of God. Be clear on that when you sign up, because grace has no intention of leaving you as you are. Grace is God giving us every option, opening every door, showing us every gate of Heaven. Grace is “God For Us” so completely that there is no room or tolerance for even a shred of our sin, unholy comforts or complacencies.

The goal of grace is the realized Kingdom of Heaven. It is bent completely toward seeing the answer to Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Whatever the cost.

Grace is not for wimps but worth the risk. To live a life so anchored in truth and power and prayer, so anchored in the truth that there is more to this life than simply staying alive at any cost, so anchored in grace that nothing rocks the boat — that is worth living for.

And worth dying for.

 

*Facts documented either by the U.S. Department of State, a reputable news organization or Open Doors, a watch-dog and support group for persecuted Christians.

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How to spark a mission revival (without nickel-and-diming your people to death)

Five years ago, our church hosted its first Global Impact Celebration. That weekend “missionWorld logo large revival” event was the culmination of about a year’s worth of work to get our mission house in order. With coaching and materials provided by The Mission Society, we developed a mission policy, identified significant partnerships and formed a plan for cultivating the resources to support those partnerships.

All great stuff because the fact was, we needed to clean up our mission house. Until then, I’d been what they call a “permission-giving pastor.” When someone came to me with a great idea, my response was usually, “If you can make it happen, help yourself!” Because of that, our outreach and mission efforts were a mile wide and an inch deep. Everyone’s special interest was being promoted; the fundraisers were beginning to nickel-and-dime us to death.

Even so, in the year before our first Global Impact Celebration our mission giving was about $5,700. Not a lot to show for all those yard and donut sales. And not a lot to show otherwise, either, except for some very tired volunteers.

Then we got connected with The Mission Society. They coached us toward a more focused approach. We developed a mission policy that helped us wade through all the great things out there and choose the ones that fit our vision and personality. The core litmus test for us became one line: Jesus at the center of everything we do. That one line has helped us say “no” to a lot of great ideas that simply aren’t inside our mission of making disciples of Christ. If Jesus isn’t part of it, it probably isn’t the project for us. That, and a few other guidelines, allowed us focus our energies and resources on twelve partnerships — some local, some regional, some global.

Once our policy was in place, we contacted those partners and invited them to a weekend of worship and conversation designed to educate our folks about what they do. We talked together about how best to connect throughout the year. During that weekend, we offered our folks the opportunity to sign up for intentional prayer for our partners that would continue throughout the year. Our people began to connect with the various partners as they aligned their passions and energies with the partner that best suited them. We also extended the invitation to our congregation to give beyond the budget needs directly toward missions.

As I said, the year before our first GIC we gave around $5,700 to mission causes.

The year of our first GIC? $55,370.

Yep … a ten-fold increase in direct giving to mission partners, simply because we got strategic and intentional.

And that level of missional giving was not a blip. It has continued and even grown, as has giving to our regular budget. As I write this, we are more financially healthy than ever.

Four GICs later, we’ve given more than $200,000 to mission causes. That doesn’t include the cash outlay for mission trips or denominational giving; that is strictly checks written toward local, regional and international ministries. Put that together with prayer and hands-on involvement and it begins to feel like maybe we’re actually making a difference in the world. A real difference. What’s more, our people are more passionate, more driven, because they are more Kingdom focused.

We’ve discovered the sheer joy of mission partnership. We love the folks with whom we serve! We love seeing them each year when they visit for our GIC weekend and we love hearing from them throughout the year as we pray for and support them. It feels more and more like a family reunion each time we get together. They are helping us write our family story and as partners we’re writing a chapter in God’s family story.

Why does any of this matter? Because missions is too important to get our leftovers. If we’re honest with ourselves that’s the way it tends to work, even in churches. We pay the bills, pay the staff, pay for programs, build the buildings, then hope for the best where the Great Commission is concerned. Having a strategy ensures that missions gets the best of our prayers, the best of our volunteer efforts and the best of our offerings … not just our leftovers.

We may not have the best church building in town (or even the best warehouse, for that matter) but I am absolutely convinced we are building the Kingdom as we live strategically into God’s plan for making disciples around the world.

The Global Outreach training offered by The Mission Society has changed the shape of our missions house. Every year it is like a little revival and this weekend we’ll be doing it again. From advance registrations it looks like this will be our best attended GIC yet. If you’re in town, come by and warm yourself in Mosaic’s mission fires.

Come, Lord Jesus, and give us your heart for the whole world.

To learn more about how The Mission Society helps local churches think strategically,  contact Duane Brown (debrown@themissionsociety.org) or visit their website (The Mission Society)

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What grace feels like (or, what I learned from a roomful of missionaries)

I spent seven days in Costa Rica with about 95 missionaries and assorted others who support them through The Mission Society. I had the great pleasure of teaching daily on themes from the book of Ephesians. Anyone could have done what I did so I recognize and deeply appreciate the grace that placed me in that room with such a Spirit-filled community. I’ve rarely felt so undeservedly blessed.

The missionaries came mostly from countries in the southern hemisphere but there were also missionaries from Tanzania, Kenya, China, India, the Philippines and a few other places. This was a global snapshot of God’s work in the world.

Here are a few things I learned from my time with these folks:

costa-rica-4The Kingdom of God comes through obedience. What I found most refreshing about this group was their quiet yet firm obedience to God’s call on their lives. These aren’t rock stars; they are ordinary men and women with a rare sense of what it means to obey God. Some of the folks I met have moved thousands of miles away from children and grandchildren, sometimes over their families’ strenuous objections. Others have taken small children into dangerous areas to live and serve. They do so not because they are naive or foolish but because they have sensed the strong call of God into this work. Their children, I might add, are some of the most remarkably flexible, faithful and fun of any kids I’ve been around.

Humility is cultivated through challenge. The most striking difference in my opinion between acosta-rica-3 roomful of missionaries and a roomful of preachers is ego. I don’t want to throw my own tribe under the bus, but the fact is that a roomful of American preachers will spend a lot of time measuring and posturing. A roomful of missionaries — that roomful, anyway — will spend time in more transparent conversation. My sense is that there is something uniquely humbling about being in another culture, mostly alone, having to figure out language, strategy and friendships on the fly.

costa-rica-1Missionaries know how to have fun. In the week I was with them, I laughed more than I have in a long time. We played simple games, watched silly skits, danced with silly cartoon figures, and told great stories. We also shared deeply, worshipped richly, and learned attentively. These guys were just plain easy to be with. I appreciated the spirit cultivated by our hosts, the staff team of The Mission Society. It was most definitely a spirit of joy, simplicity and rest.

The body of Christ is a beautiful thing. I loved the structure of this gathering. There were Bible teachers, counselors, strategic thinkers, musicians, creative minds, organizers, story-tellers, culture watchers, innovation managers and prayer warriors all gathered together and all encouraged to share their gifts. Each was able to contribute or receive as they were led. The result was a gloriously restful time of sharing, learning and growing.

I spent the first half of my life exploring different organizations and offering my support where I was able. In this season, I’ve chosen to focus my attention on three: Asbury Theological Seminary (and its publishing house, Seedbed), The Mission Society and Mosaic Church. Seeing the heart and soul of The Mission Society as I met and mingled with its missionaries, I am left with a deeper commitment to this fine organization. Since many of those missionaries spent time at Asbury, I’m all the more impressed with the kind of servant heart incubated at that school. And the trip itself was possible only because the gracious community of Mosaic has so generously embraced my speaking ministry as part of their contribution to the Body of Christ.

I am blessed indeed to be associated with such greatness. This must be what grace feels like.

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