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My first instinct was to write about a specific model or expression of church.

And then I recalled something I heard Brian Sanders say in an old dilapidated Dillard’s department store that had been repurposed into a training center for missionary leaders. Sanders is the co-founder of Tampa Underground, a network of more than 200 “microchurches” in Tampa, Florida. 

Sanders shared a framework from Roger Martin’s book, The Design of BusinessTruly innovative forms begin first by exploring mystery — the mystery of a particular context, with all its problems, challenges, and assets. As that mystery is engaged, heuristics emerge: these are the principles or rules of thumb about how that context functions. Heuristics lead to algorithms, repeatable best practices for responding to a context.

The problem, Sanders said, is that most church leaders are interested in algorithms — the “how to,” the best practices — when those algorithms may not actually fit the varied contexts in which church leaders find themselves. What church leaders need, instead, is to explore the mystery of their own contexts and out of it develop principles (heuristics) and practices (algorithms) that fit their context.

In other words, when it comes to thinking about new wineskins for the church in our time, we’d do better to be contextually-responsive instead of model-specific in our approach to mission. 

I learned this the hard way. When I began church planting work in Dallas in 2008, my imagination had been captured by simple / organic / house church models for mission. I entered my context committed to a certain set of algorithms, and despite the counsel of wise mentors to listen deeply to my context, I thought to myself, I know my context and I’m going to implement these strategies because I like them. The results were mixed: parts of our approach connected, and parts of it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I still love small, simple expressions of church, but I often wonder if the church we planted in those early days was more a response to church planting books than it was a response to our context.

Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, describes how the early church grew exponentially in a span of 300 years from 1,000 believers to nearly 34 million — more than half of the population of the Roman Empire. The early church did not invent the wineskin that facilitated such rapid growth. Instead, the church grew and spread through an existing structure in Greco-Roman culture: the oikos (household). Households were the economic backbone of the Roman Empire, consisting of both extended family members, slaves, neighbors, and business partners. Christian missionaries planted seeds of Christian community within these household structures in their context rather than inventing some alternative structure and seeking to attract people to it.

What if we don’t have to invent the new wineskins of the church in our time? What if they already exist? 

Already emerging are neighborhood churches, business-place churches, yoga churches, cycling churches, kayak churches, dinner churches, board gaming churches, bar churches, virtual churches, social service non-profit churches, and more — all of which are growing up out of structures already present and widespread in our contexts. Established churches are serving as anchors of stability and resourcing for these new expressions.

The truth is that Churches of Christ have trained global missionaries to respond to their contexts for decades. A context-responsive posture represents the basics of missiology, anthropology, and contextualization. 

It’s time for us to respond to our various North American contexts in the same way: to engage the mystery of our surrounding cultures and to participate with God’s Spirit to give birth to new expressions of church — hospitable, just, inclusive, and healing expressions — that make sense for our context.

If you’re interested in a longer-form discussion of these ideas, check out Elaine Heath’s presentation, “A Third Great Awakening,” where she describes the institutional dynamics of the United Methodist Church, which I believe are very similar to the current dynamics within Churches of Christ.

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I was trying to get the attention of one of the kids at school the other day but the student wasn’t responding. At first, I thought he was in his own little world. Then as I said his name a bit louder, I decided he was flat out ignoring me. As I got even closer I wondered if something was wrong. Maybe he wasn’t ignoring me. Maybe his hearing needed checking. I was growing concerned. After all, this kid was one of the sweetest in the class. As I repeated his name, another teacher asked who I was calling. She laughed when I told her and then offered his correct name. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been listening. I had been calling the wrong name the entire time.

That story came to mind while I stood in the parking lot of the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando recently. The scene where 49 people were killed is our country’s deadliest mass shooting. Surrounded by the memorials left by friends and family, I fought the feeling that kept rising in the pit of my stomach. A feeling of despair and heartache; a feeling that, although evil’s days are numbered, it had won a battle that night. I thought of the mothers who had buried their precious children. The kids who would never again hear the sound of their parent’s voice. The siblings who would tearfully stare at the empty chair this holiday season. The loved ones who, with broken hearts, would never forget. I read the notes pinned to the fence that had been put up around the gray building. I stared at the pictures and the smiling faces now gone and it dawned on me that as a church we haven’t always done a good job of loving our neighbor. We do alright with the neighbor who looks, votes and lives pretty much the way we do. However, some neighbors don’t always fit the mold we have created. They love, live and sin differently. We aren’t nearly as brave as the expert of the law in Luke 10 when he asked Jesus point blankly who his neighbor was. Maybe we’re too afraid of what Jesus would say.

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Empathy begins when we agree to meet others in their darkness. It flourishes when we refuse to cast stones and instead listen and care even when we don’t understand. It changes lives when we share our hope in Jesus as we call people by the name God bestowed on them. A name of love. A name of worth. A name God gave to the world long before the world had the inclination to rebel. A name spelled out in John 3:16. One given to all creation but especially to those created in his image. It was echoed again in Mark 12:30-31 when Jesus instructed those who were listening and those who would someday read. How often we forget that loving God and neighbor are also acts of salvation.

Jesus never said we would be known by where we stand on issues, how well we debate, boycott, vote, quote Scripture or lambaste those who live differently. As the bride of Christ, he instructed us to love so powerful and purposefully that it will become the very definition of who we are and why we’re here. We will be known by how well we love or by how well we don’t.

God wasn’t in our empty church building that Saturday night twiddling his thumbs waiting for our decent and orderly worship service the next day. No, he was in a Florida nightclub comforting those he had watched take their first breath. He loved them, wept for them and held them as they took their last.

If we want to change the world for Christ, then we need to be telling the world who they are. They are loved. They matter. They were made for a purpose. The one who is calling them is bigger than the lies and brokenness of this world. They were made in his image and he gave his only son so that they may have life. He will never leave nor forsake them. He will never disappoint or discourage.

People will never listen to us if we continue calling them by the wrong name. They know where we stand on issues. Church, let’s show our neighbors how well we love.

 

EEM new Logo black typeThere are times in our lives when something truly amazing happens. When the right people are at the right places at the right time. And when the right calls are made. Eastern European Mission (EEM) has been privileged to be in the right places at the right time to meet the right people.

THE SITUATION.

Communism created and left a lingering moral void in the former Communist Bloc nations that continues to have detrimental effects today. Many parents, educators, and teachers in these nations are concerned about the future of the young people. Some have decided that the Bible should be the basis for bringing up the “next generation” and are acting on that belief to bring the Bible back into their society.

THE RUSSIA CONNECTION.

Beginning in the mid 1990’s, entire regions (or oblasts – equivalent to states in the U.S.) in Russia began to ask EEM to supply all of their schools with enough Bibles and biblical literature so each student could thoroughly study the Bible. These requests came through a Russian Minister of Education, Vladimir, and required meetings, documentation, and lengthy approval processes from government and region officials. EEM responded to those requests, with Vladimir’s help, and to date, EEM has supplied Bibles and biblical literature in five regions in Russia. This country alone represents 7,250 public schools with more than 1.5 million students having the opportunity to study the Bible.

UKRAINE CALLED NEXT.

EEM’s experience and success with placing Bibles in public schools in Russia translated well to the country of Ukraine. In 2008, the move into the schools in Ukraine, began with the region of Donetsk with 1,187 public schools and 366,000 students. The successful completion of the project in Donetsk created increased interest in EEM’s work, and the word began to spread throughout Ukraine.

IVANO-FRANKIVSK.

A turning point for EEM in Ukraine was in the region of Ivano-Frankivsk. Several factors worked in concert to generate their request for Bibles in public schools.

For seven years, one of EEM’s youth camp program teams from the U.S. visited a former communist youth camp in the region of Ivano-Frankivsk and developed strong relationships between the camp director, staff, and campers. Thousands of Bibles and biblical literature were given to the campers who took them home and even to school, exposing the Bible to many in that region.

Then a member of EEM’s staff in Ukraine renewed a relationship with a former acquaintance at a university in Ivano-Frankivsk, which ultimately led to a meeting with the Minister of Culture for the region. Discussions with the Minister of Culture resulted in a request to the Lubbock Christian University choir to visit and sing in Ivano-Frankivsk. The choir accepted the invitation and performed a concert, which was well-received by many local dignitaries, including the mayor and several area educational officials.

EEM followed up on contacts made through the previous activities, ultimately resulting in a meeting with the Minister of Education for the region of Ivano-Frankivsk. From that meeting came the official request for EEM to provide Bibles and biblical literature to all 763 schools in the region, representing 170,000 students.

In 2010 EEM fulfilled the requests for Bibles in public schools in the regions of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine and Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Yes, Russia was still asking for Bibles as well.

THE DELIVERY. “ARE YOU REALLY GOING TO DO THIS”?

At the end of 2010, with the Bibles printed and ready to deliver to Ukraine, EEM met with the Minister of Education to arrange the delivery details. On hearing from EEM that the Bibles were ready for delivery, the Minister of Education asked, “Are you really going to do this?” To which EEM replied, “Yes, we are ready to begin.” The Minister then said, again, “Are you really going to do this?” To which the reply was “Yes, we said we would, and we are ready to deliver the Bibles.” At this point, the Minister of Education said, “We have been promised so many things by so many groups who never did what they said they would do. So, if you are really ready to deliver the Bibles, then here is what I will do: if you can have all of your Bibles and literature here in two days, then I will call all of the schools in the region and instruct them to send teachers in whatever vehicles they have to pick up the Bibles and literature for their schools.”

The news was exciting, for sure; however, at that point, the Bibles and Biblical literature were still at the printer’s warehouse in Kiev, over 350 miles away. But EEM went to work. Using 18-wheeler trucks and working around the clock, all of the Bibles and biblical literature arrived in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in just two days.

Then, true to the Minister’s word, groups of teachers showed their excitement at getting the Bibles for their schools by driving whatever transportation they had available, through ice and snow, from all over the state to pick up their school’s Bibles. They came in yellow school buses, blue vans, old green trucks, or any vehicle that would make the trip and carry stacks of Bibles. Genuine excitement accompanied each group, and teachers offered statements of appreciation for the Bibles as they signed for their allotments.

THE DOOR OPENS WIDER IN UKRAINE.

As thrilling as these events are, the door has opened wider. Much wider, particularly in Ukraine. When the Minister of Education in Ivano-Frankivsk saw that EEM was delivering as promised, she picked up her phone and called fellow Ministers of Education in three neighboring regions and strongly encouraged them to visit with EEM. EEM began receiving more requests from more regions for Bibles in their schools. Over the next few years, Bibles were delivered to the Saki district in Crimea, and the Poltava, Rivne, Lviv and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. These regions alone contain 3,674 public schools with over 743,000 students. In Luhansk, we were asked to supply Bibles and biblical literature for 570 public libraries, as well.

CAN A BIBLE CHANGE A NATION?

While we do not control politics, the economy, or other factors affecting nations, particularly in Ukraine, we do believe the opportunity to provide Bibles to all of the public schools in Ukraine can change lives…and a nation. As one of our dear Ukrainian friends, Vasyl (Dean of Humanities at a national university), said, “If we can put the Bible into the public schools, we can change this nation in one generation.” Unfortunately, in our own nation, we have seen the effect of removing the Bible from our public schools in less than one generation.

In 2014, we have the opportunity to place Bibles in the public schools of three additional Ukrainian regions: Kherson (including universities), Ternopil, and Zaporizhzhya. These regions represent 341,000 students in 2,071 public schools (plus 27 universities) who will be studying the Bible. Visit www.MillionDollarSunday.org for more information.

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Only God could orchestrate this. It is to Him we give all the credit and praise. It is from Him we ask for the wisdom and strength to faithfully respond to whatever He calls us to do.

The Bible. We want everyone to get it.

A global conference to bring Churches of Christ together to focus on more effectively reaching our world for Jesus Christ.

A global conference to bring Churches of Christ together to focus on more effectively reaching our world for Jesus Christ.

By most estimates, there are nearly 3 billion people in the world today who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ. There are 87 countries in the world where less than 2% of the population is Christian. And here in the United States, the opportunities are plentiful to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with those who are currently unreached. The question many Christians ask, when faced with this great need is – how can our churches more effectively advance domestic and global outreach?

One way that Churches of Christ are addressing this need is the tri-annual Global Missions Conference, held in Memphis on October 16-18. Led by a steering committee of missions leaders from across the nation, this Conference will feature: international presenters; practical missions sessions; missions exhibits and networking; and the World Missions Workshop for college students.

John Reese, Conference Steering Committee member and President of World Bible School said, “Churches of Christ are one of the largest missionary-sending organizations in the nation. In several respects we have performed well in our evangelistic outreach, yet the world is growing faster than our efforts. How can we deepen our biblical underpinnings, improve our strategies, concentrate our efforts and communicate more effectively with one another?”

The Conference will consist of 13 Workshops, each consisting of four classes, offered for those serving in various aspects of missions. Each workshop will be spread over the two conference days.

Reese added, “This conference will enable Churches of Christ to be more intentional in work worldwide in reaching the lost; to strengthen the central role of the local church in global missions; to practice better stewardship; and to work side by side with others all over the world in reconciling people to the Lord.”

Conference Tracks include:

  • Short-term Missions – coordinated by Mark Woodward
  • Missionary Care / Family Track – coordinated by Beth Reese
  • U.S. Missions – coordinated by Stan Granberg
  • There will also be a special track with workshops for university students and teens

Other Conference features include special interest sessions, breakout sessions, interest groups and the plenary sessions with the keynote speakers.

Special Interest Session: America Is Calling – The Whites Ferry Road Church of Christ from West Monroe, LA will share their story of how the people of America are coming to them, seeking spiritual answers. Several of the leaders will have a conversation about their experience and what they are doing about it.

Breakout Sessions – There will be approximately 20 different breakout sessions to discuss positive ideas that work. Some of these discussions will be about advancing the gospel in specific geographical locations, and other discussions will be about types of work or methods to use.

Interest groups – These groups will enable people to learn from some different ministries that make their focus to reach people around the world. Participants will be given the opportunity to learn from these ministries and discover ways they can partner together.

Plenary Sessions – The keynote plenary sessions will focus on major themes around missions, whether through the local church or non-profit ministry, or on the mission field. Keynote speakers include: Machona Monyamane, John Reese, Gary Jackson, David Duncan and Monte Cox.

Register Today! – There are still openings available for more participants, but now is the time to register if you plan to attend, as registration will fill up soon. Visit www.globalmissionsconference.org for all the information on registration, lodging, directions and conference details. Online registration is open until October 1st, so register today!

“No matter whether you are a missionary or missionary candidate, an elder, missions committee member, campaigner, Bible school teacher or simply a person interested in world evangelism, there will be workshops tailored to meet your needs,” stated Beth Reese, Conference Steering Committee member.

This year’s Global Missions Conference will be held at the Goodman Oaks Church of Christ in Southhaven, MS just south of Memphis, TN. Lodging and transportation options are available. More information can be found on the Global Missions Conference web site.

“The heritage we carry as the Churches of Christ is that we have evangelized, built schools and become a global movement of God, and now God is calling us to collaborate in order to respond to His call for redeeming the world in which we each live,” Reese concluded.

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