The Sleeping Bear Awakens

Our liberal fellow-citizens have awakened from their slumbers. And like any hibernating bear just rising from a four month nap, these liberals are hungry for some political breakfast. This is not a time to pat them on the nose. Better look for a big stick, because they are in an ornery mood.

I’ve bumped into the bears various places this past week. The President of NOW whining at the National Press Club about the need for Federal funds to promote more women firepersons and policepersons in NYC. The editor of The Nationwaxing downright wacky on PBS, saying we need to turn the whole Afghan conflict over to the U.N. (!!!) and spend 50 billion to close the gap between rich and poor. (To whom should we send those checks?) Daschle doing his best impersonation of the fellow who must tell the children there will be no money for new shoes this year because daddy and all his buddies done went and drank it all at the Tax Cut Tavern. Oh My ;-(

But it all pales next to the gushing glee and sounds of celebration coming from the liberal newsrooms of the networks as they sink their teeth into the Enron disaster. Here is what they have been praying for over at CBS, as they burn copies of Bernie Goldberg’s book at night: a real Republican scandal. And such a perfect one. Widows losing their pensions while executives write themselves multi-million dollar golden parachutes. (Hey lady- you put all your pension in company stock? YOU ARE AN IDIOT!!) A bankrupt energy company full of Bush administration contributors. Lots of phone calls to the White House. Lots of denials from the President and the Cabinet. Oh, it is REVIVAL time at ABC!! (Should we tell them about the Enron contributions to the Clinton Administration? Not yet….)

Watching the ABC news promo on the the Enron story, I have to admit to being a bit shocked as they inserted a scandal-ready black and white photo of a stunned President Bush into the middle of the commercial, looking as Nixonesque as possible, as if to say the President was caught with his ranch truck helping the Enron guys haul out money to the garage. Hoping, hoping, hoping. One fellow at CBS Marketwatch, full of the spirit, said that this was Bush’s Whitewater ,only it would be much worse. I am sure Mr. Gore’s phone was ringing off the wall. Whadaya think, Al?

Awakening from their nap, pictures of soldiers in Afghanistan suddenly look different to liberals. They see a war Americans are already tired of, a war accumulating casualties, a war that has few (if any) allies and a war that will spread to other countries. And what is this war to our liberal friends? It is the President’s excuse to ram his agenda down our collective throats, his reason to spend the surplus, give tax cuts to the rich, screw the poor and expand federal power to Orwellian dimensions. The scent of Vietnam is in the air. Now, if they can only get the rest of us to see what they see.

The Gore half of our country has tilted dangerously the President’s way the last four months, and Democrats are seeing a bad moon arising in 2002. Even Napoleon Daschle was not willing to say “No Tax Cut,” while GWB was willing to say there would only be tax increases over his dead body. The President has a great deal of national good will from his job performance since 9-11, and that is influencing public perception of all his policies, not because the country has become conservative, but because people trust the guy. They have seen something in him they didn’t see from Clinton or Gore, and they like it. Do the Democrats think the country will throw out Bush over Enron and anti-war fever? Beautiful dreamer….

So the roused liberal bear will tear up some things, turn over some tables and sound very scary. There are more Enron investigations right now than actual members of congress. The smell of shredded documents is in the air. Look for the long hidden Democratic partisan dummies to line up on the talk shows and begin yapping about Republicans as power-mad, pro-business, big-oil guzzling, money soaked, fat cat, fanatics who can only be stopped by the good hearted, little man loving, pure as the driven snow Democrats. Uh-huh. Tape that so we can watch it over and over.

I have to say liberals needed this shot in the arm. They have taken some serious punches the last few months and it has been painful (and fun) to watch. It is somewhat comforting to know that they can still growl and make things interesting. But someone will need to tell them- they are losing. Losing ground, losing support and losing any semblance of a moral platform to criticize President Bush. They are acting as if GWB is President Clinton. That’s some bad acid, people. The differences are many, but I can summarize it this way: Clinton was a liar, a spinner and a con-artist out to get chicks and be a media star. President Bush tells the truth, means what he says, has a vision for the country and won’t lie to the country and ask us to save his butt. Unfortunately for the liberals, the average Joe has this figured out.

So welcome back liberals. I hope you are up for the fight. I expect it will be a good one, but I think we will see a bear skin rug in the White House very soon.

John Ashcroft: The Left’s Pathetic Case for Racism

The Democrat argument is simple. Because Ashcroft vigorously opposed the appointment of an African-American as a Federal judge, he is unfit to be attorney general. This argument depends on the public’s general lack of knowledge about Ashcroft’s record, since as a two-term Missouri governor and one-term U.S. Senator, he was not only astonishingly successful by every measure, but widely respected as a person of character and unquestioned fairness. The fair application of the rule of law is his passion. Take note of the WSJ’s summary of Ashcroft’s record on the issue of race:

“Ashcroft is hardly a George Wallace: The AP dispatch notes that as Missouri’s governor from 1985 to 1993, he signed into law a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King, established musician Scott Joplin’s house as Missouri’s only historic site honoring a black person, created an award honoring black educator George Washington Carver, named a black woman to a state judgeship, and led a fight to save Lincoln University, which was founded by black soldiers. He also voted for the confirmation of 23 of 26 black judicial appointees during his six years in the Senate.” In addition, Ashcroft’s wife is a professor at Howard University, which should be an interesting place for Al Sharpton to visit in the near future.

There is more. He balanced the state budget eight times. Under his leadership, only one other state had a lower tax-burden. As a senator, he added “charitable choice” to welfare reform and supported increased federal spending on education. Citizens Against Governement Waste rated him as a “hero” with a perfect voting record. His passionate attack on the methamphetamine  trade in his state was effective and unprecedented. And sorry Mr. Gore, but guess who was talking about that Social security lockbox long before you?

Missourians sent him to the senate and the governor’s mansion with more than 60% of the vote. He is the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on the constitution and serves on the Judiciary and Foreign relations committee. He was attorney general of Missouri. Bill Schneider from CNN said “No one can compete with Senator Ashcroft on family values… He’s trusted by both social and economic conservatives… He combines deeply conservative convictions with a moderate political style — open, accessible, tolerant…” Tolerant. Look it up. It’s a term much used, but apparently little understood.

This is our new David Duke? C’mon my Democrat friends. I know you guys are a little shaken up, but does anyone with half a brain really think that the Senate of the United States will turn this man into your poster child for Republicans as racists? Yes, he is pro-life and a Christian and doesn’t dance, drink or smoke, but even if your Hollywood and media elite toadies try to portray him as a prude or a religious zealot or out of step (All terms courtesy of Bill Maher), do you really think you can make the public believe the man is a racist?

It is true that Ashcroft’s opposition to a black federal judge was vigorous and his efforts to defeat the appointment were extraordinary.  But the issue was the sentencing of criminals and the fair application of the death penalty. The liberal attempt to say that everyone who approves of the death penalty is a racist just won’t work. Ashcroft deserves to say why he opposed that appointment, but the Senators who voted with him to halt the appointment know it was about ideology, not race. (I know that in our postmodern times, that sentence may not make sense to several of you.)

So how about the truth here? Liberals and Democrats are bitter and angry. They will appear marginally bi-partisan because the public wants it, but they are hoping for the first brushfire to break out in the Bush administration so they can fan it into a political inferno. Terry Macauliffe has said as much. Bush has done a brilliant job of cabinet selection and liberals don’t have much to work with. Ashcroft, Norton and Chavez. And all will, barring unforeseen developments, make it past the Senate easily.

I am not a Democrat because liberals believe it is immoral to disagree with them. The actual outworking of tolerant and civilized disagreement are beyond them.  The “evils” of Ashcroft and others are simply their principled disagreements with the failed policies of the Democratic party. They reject the twisted logic that the only compassion is more and more big government. They reject the liberal belief that protection of the unborn is racism and oppression of women. They believe union members shouldn’t have their dues spent on views they disagree with and they believe environmentalism and intelligent use of natural resources are not mutually exclusive. They reject multi-culturalism in education and the slow cultural suicide of bi-lingual education. And for this, the Democrat party says they are racists and threats to America’s women, children, schools and environment.

There is more diversity in Bush’s cabinet than in any previous administration, Democratic or Republican. To even consider the idea that Janet Reno is fit to be AG and John Ashcroft is unfit is laughable. There are lots of things wrong with the Republican party and plenty of individual Republicans that deserve to be derided and criticized. But John Ashcroft is not one of them. He’s not a racist and my Democrat friends know it.


Does The Rest of The World Need The Spirit of America?

Does The Rest of The World Need The Spirit of America?
A letter to my daughter

Reader: My daughter, Noel Spencer, is away at a special summer program for high school seniors. She is spending five weeks on the campus of Centre College as a “Kentucky Governor’s Scholar.” While visiting her on “Family Day,” we discussed a debate she had participated in on the topic, “Does the rest of the world need the spirit of America?” The debate was divided between those who said the world needs our heritage of freedom, and those who said America is selfish.

• • •

Dear Noel,

It was great to see you on Family Day, and we are very proud of you for being chosen to be part of this prestigious group of high school scholars. I am especially happy that you are getting a feel for what college is really like, and the debate you told me about is a good example. “Does the world need the spirit of America?” What a great question! I’ve thought about it a lot since we talked. I want to share with you some of my thoughts. Perhaps they will cause you to look at the debate a bit differently.

I noticed that Centre, like most colleges these days, is very enthusiastic about diversity and multiculturalism, and that is expected in the postmodern academic environment. There are reminders everywhere that we are a world of many nations. This seems very important, even though it doesn’t appear to me that the school, or your program, is a particularly international community. You said that one of the staff read the United Nations’ “Declaration of Human Rights” to the students, which is certainly an indication of interest in the idea of a world community. I also noticed that many students travel to other nations as part of the college’s program, and that is commendable.

Is there anything wrong with celebrating other cultures, or in working for more of a just and fair world community? Certainly not, as long as the approach is truthful, realistic and helpful. It should be part of a good education to become more aware of the diversity of our world, the historical roots of that diversity and the impact diversity has on our lives. That diversity includes, of course, many things that a thoughtful person must consider carefully. For example, are all cultures equally good? Are the beliefs of all cultures equally true? Does any culture have the right to say that another culture is “wrong” in something that they do?

Here’s an example. When the first English missionaries went to India, it was still the custom for the wife of a deceased man to be burned alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. This custom, which was considered perfectly normal by the Hindus, horrified the Europeans, and the English outlawed the practice. Now some would call this interfering with the culture and imposing values from one culture on another. But I think a thoughtful person would say there is an issue of right and wrong at work here, an issue that goes beyond a respect for customs. Americans have cringed at images of Afghan women being beaten in the streets for talking to a non-related male in public. One person has said some cultures teach us to love our neighbors, while others say you can eat your neighbors. Multi-culturalism has its limits.

So we can celebrate diversity, but we cannot say that all cultures are equal, other than to say that all are sinful in some way, and that all have good aspects of one kind or another. (I have written on this elsewhere.) This is an important point in the debate on “Does the world need the spirit of America?” I would answer “Yes, there are many things about America that the rest of the world needs.” And I would also say there is plenty about America that no one needs, not even Americans!

What are some of those things? Well, there are so many, I hardly know where to start. Americans have freely elected their own government for 226 years. This heritage of democracy and self determination is rare in our world, and I don’t think your fellow students realize that. For example, recently the Arab League, an organization representing all forty two Arab governments in the world, has been meeting and telling America what should happen in the Palestinian conflict. Someone pointed out that only one of these Arab nations has a freely elected government. Most are dictatorships or ruled by militarily backed families. Do I think the world would be better- and the middle east would be better- if all those Arab states had our constitution? Absolutely. Even with the mess in the 2000 Presidential election, no one drew guns and seized power for themselves, but that is an annual occurrence in many countries.  I admire President Bush for saying that his middle east policy hinged on having free elections in Palestine. The spirit of American democracy is needed now more than ever.

America has the greatest opportunities for women and the most compassion on children. Contrast the treatment of women and children in America with Africa or Asia, where everything from clitoral circumcision to child prostitution is still going on while governments look the other way. America has the most amazing free education system on the planet. Not only is public education through grade twelve free, but any American, regardless of income, can go to college, and graduate with a degree. Much of that college bill will be government subsidized or privately funded. Even England doesn’t give the opportunity for college to everyone. Americans are free to choose their careers, free to establish businesses, free to travel and free to associate. Sure, America has its problems with racial issues, but we’ve managed to banish slavery, integrate our society with immigrants from all over the planet and eliminate race as basis for law (except for liberals who want to use racial quotas in hiring and education.)

In fact, the debate you participated in is a good example of what the rest of the world needs. In many countries, such free debate is not possible at all, and any criticism of the government is a reason for imprisonment. In our own hemisphere, freedom of the press is not guaranteed. And what about freedom of religion? In many countries, Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism are the only allowed religions, and differing beliefs are hindered or persecuted. In China, even belonging to an innocent group like Falun Gong is illegal. The rest of the world needs our spirit of freedom of worship and freedom of ideas. With history of protest on many college campuses, you would think it might occur to someone that in other countries Kent State isn’t a rarity, but normal. Look up Tiananmen Square to see what I mean.

Why weren’t these things obvious to your fellow students? Well, the sad fact is that most of those students have been raised in virtual ignorance of these wonderful things about our country. Think about an afternoon watching MTV. Group after group talks about the injustice and misery in America, yet they are using the right of free speech to criticize America. They can make fun of the President without fear, though if the same thing were done in many countries it would be prison for certain. These groups portray America as racist and totalitarian, even though America is the most diverse and freedom loving nation in the world. Walter Williams says these are the merchants of misery, building their carrers on portraying America as racist and totalitarian.

I don’t believe we need to be blind to America’s many faults and flaws, but we can’t be blind to its strengths either. And we certainly cannot be afraid to say that other nations would be better off to have the freedoms and rights we enjoy here. Any view of multiculturalism that says America is no better than thugocracies like Iraq or the states that mistreat and imprison their own citizens simply for speaking or worshipping is inherently blind. Even with our abuse of native Americans, our heritage of slavery and the corruption of many of our institutions, America stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world.

Since you have visited Europe, I thought you would be particularly interested in my response to those Hollywood types who continually say they want to live in Europe because it is so much better than the United States. Since Europe is the closest to us in many of our values, the contrasts are especially interesting.

For instance, Europe takes a massive amount of taxes away from its citizens. Don’t think for a moment that the ability to earn and keep your own money isn’t a wonderful benefit. Even with high taxation in America you still will make and keep far more as an American than as a European. Government regulation is rampant in Europe. (Look at their cars!) Higher education isn’t available to everyone. England still has a state church and France has labeled many Protestants as illegal cults. Anti-Semitism is growing in Europe. Jewish synagogues have been burned in France and the government has little to say. Many European nations are still supporting monarchies, and only granted democratic rights and government after America’s example shamed them into doing so. LOok at the French revolution and compare it to our own American revolution! Europeans (with a few exceptions) regularly oppose us on issues like capital punishment or how to fight terrorism. When Europe gets a war going in its backyard, such as in Bosnia, they expect us to come over and solve it. They blame us for everything, can’t see any problems with an ever-growing government and are highly suspicious of free enterprise without socialistic guidance.

I have no desire for Europe to become like America, but I am darned weary of American celebrities and liberals acting as if America is a police state and Europe is a paradise. History, experience and common sense say otherwise. Europe has a whole set of problems that I won’t explain here, but those who would trade America for Europe should check out what the next fifty years holds for Europe as its populations shrink and its non-assimilated Muslim populations increase.

I also wanted to say a few words about the objection taken by the other side in your debate: that America is selfish.

What catches my attention here isn’t that the objection isn’t true- there is plenty of greed, selfishness and arrogance in America- but how ironic it is that high school and college students would raise that objection. American students enjoy a standard of living that is off the scale compared to other countries. Are these students recognizing their own desire for a $35,000 car and a six figure job as selfishness? Are they recognizing their own high flying lifestyles as part of the problem? Of all the generations America has produced, the current crop of students is the most selfish. Maybe it takes one to know one.

These students might consider that America subsidizes their education all the way through high school. For many of those students, a large portion of their college education is paid for by donors and taxpayers. It is America that gives more foreign aid- both public and private- than any other nation in the world. It is America that has a immigration policy so open that it really is a bit crazy, considering recent events. Yet, we will take in millions of legal and illegal immigrants and pay for their medical expenses out of our own pockets. Americans donate billions of dollars to charities, and donate millions of hours to worthy causes. Organizations like the United Way, the Salvation Army, the Scouts and the Red Cross demonstrate American generosity.

Americans are involved in thousands of community projects from sports leagues to campaigns to eradicate diseases to crusades against illiteracy. Americans have given their sons and daughters to liberate Europe and many other nations. American professionals donate millions of dollars of free services to the poor. Your parents work at one of the thousands of religious institutions that give education and help to people who cannot afford such help, and we do so strictly on the generosity of donors and those who sacrifice to work here. Sure, there are corporate criminals, the idle rich and the powerfully corrupt, but anyone who traveled across our country, looked at our communities and talked with our people would say that Americans, with all their flaws, are still the most generous people on earth. Your mom and I support several causes that help feed people overseas, and our income is considered very modest. We’re typical, at least in my experience.

Perhaps those students don’t know much about America. Their point of view may reflect what they see on television and hear from their insulated media sources. it may be a result of a generation who knows the cast of “Friends,” but doesn’t know the Bill of Rights or what good things are going on in their own communities. Let’s hope that can change/

It has never been popular on the college campus to be pro-American. There is something in the spirit of the young that says you should rebel against your parents and against the status quo. If you were to read this article to most college students, they would respond with a litany of American failures in the area of race, a list of government abuses and corporate swindles. Yet, many of these same young people will soon become the beneficiaries of the best jobs and salaries in our society, and many will jump in with both feet to become part of the system they say is so flawed.

As a Christian, I believe we must see and acknowledge God’s blessings on our country, and at the same time confess our sins and shortcomings. This is the country that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person, and this is the country whose founding documents haunted us until we fought a war to end slavery. We paid the price in blood to extend the promise of America to our own citizens. This is what is great about America. The same freedom that can be abused can also become the opportunity for change. A single person, believing in the promise of our country and unafraid to face its flaws, can still change this nation for the better. I hope you become such a person.

Your mom and I love and miss you. We hope and pray that all goes well for the rest of your summer.

Love always,


The Little Brothers of Saint Archie Bunker

The Little Brothers of Saint Archie Bunker
How to argue theology till no one but the cows come home

“We didn’t crawl out from under no rocks. We didn’t have no tails. And we didn’t come from monkeys you atheist pinko meathead.”

“It ain’t supposed to make sense; it’s faith. Faith is something that you believe that nobody in his right mind would believe.”

• Archie Bunker

• • •

I used to watch “All In The Family” with my dad. It was strange. Strange because my dad was the virtual clone of Archie Bunker (and my mother the twin of Edith), and all the comedy- which I increasingly found both hilarious and truthful- usually went right past him.

Archie was perhaps the greatest practitioner of the art of argumentation ever portrayed on stage or screen. He had all the necessary gifts. He believed himself to be more knowledgeable on any subject than anyone else in the room. He had a vocabulary that ran circles around a normal person. He was never daunted by logic, compassion, or mercy. No, he pressed on, wagging his finger–or cigar–in your face, making his points, calling Mike a meathead or the neighbor an idiot or worse.

Archie loved an argument the way most people love dessert. At the slightest provocation, he bullishly inserted his opinion and denigrated yours. Reality, facts, common sense, sheer numbers of opponents–none of it made a dent in Archie. Inventing and redefining terms was an art form with him. It was Archie who explained that male behavior was determined by khromostones, and later discovered both his-mones and her-mones. When he found humility, it was always his special variety: “The only thing that holds a marriage together is the husband bein’ big enough to keep his mouth shut, to step back and see where his wife is wrong.”

I’ve decided that Archie Bunker is the patron saint of Christians who can’t stop making their point. Christians who love to argue. Christians who can’t stand it that someone somewhere disagrees with them. Christians who are caught up in theological controversy like University of Kentucky basketball fans are caught up in defending their team. Christians who have to correct everyone the way obsessed Lord of the Rings fans must correct any deviation from the Holy Canons of Tolkien. Christians who can’t rest easy if someone somewhere is not understanding, reading, or getting “it,” whatever “it” happens to be.

Like the guy I once had over for dinner. I was pastoring and looking for some non-congregational fellowship, so Denise and I invited over this Reformed Baptist pastor and his wife for a meal and some conversation. No Amway talks. No counseling appointments. Just dinner.

After the meal, this young pastor and I walked across the road from the parsonage to the church and to my study. And that’s when it happened. Right there in my chair, still digesting the chicken, this guy starts challenging my call to the ministry, and eventually, my salvation.

I said something about wishing our church had elders. Saint Archie Bunker was apparently praying for me, because the young pastor started in without mercy. If you know that the Bible teaches elders, how can you pastor a church that doesn’t have elders? You need to make this change now, or resign immediately. If you haven’t obeyed the truth you know, aren’t you a false shepherd? (Yes, a false shepherd!) And if you willfully continue in sin, and don’t repent, aren’t you actually an apostate? Believe me, he did a much better job than I just did!

If you want to know what I said, I believe I profoundly sat there making strange shapes with my lips, sighing and thinking how I could get this guy into his car and across the county line.
Now, here is the tragic thing. The young man didn’t need to do this. He could have said all this to his wife driving home. He could have given me a book or a tape. I like gifts. He could have invited us over for dinner, gotten to know me and eventually asked those questions in an intelligent way.  But no–he had to get in my face right then. He had to spurn my hospitality and ignore my desire for fellowship. He had to pass any chance to encourage or influence me long term in order to confront me as soon as possible.

That’s sad, or sick, whichever you prefer. And it’s too common among some theologically smart, Biblically sharp people. The little brothers of Saint Archie Bunker, I call them.

I meet Calvinists who have no control over their need to make all Biblical discussions turn into debates on predestination. There are young earth creationists who hunt down anything that smells like a less-than-literal view of Genesis one and label it evolution. Pentecostal/Charismatics have all varieties of little brothers of Saint Archie who can’t stand it that someone isn’t riding the latest wave of the Holy Spirit into last days revival. Seminary students who can’t understand why there is anyone refusing to read N.T. Wright, and hand-wringers staying up nights writing letters to people who do read N.T. Wright.

There are political types who won’t shut up, and Dobson types who won’t leave you alone, and don’t even start on those people caught up in the euphoria of the latest evangelical product, and have to make sure any peaceful gathering is subjected to commercials and testimonials.

Are religious enthusiasts just naturally obnoxious? Or do certain forms of Christianity attract people who have an insatiable need to impose their beliefs on others? Do some of us simply have nothing on the the mental dashboard that registers “too intense?”

It is a fact that any religion worth ten cents carries the warning label “Caution! Adherents may become convinced they are right, and feel obligated to make you a project.” Many forms of evangelicalism encourage things like cold-case confrontations and manipulating conversations in the name of persuasion, so that obnoxious and obsessed types may get the bonus of feeling they are “bold witnesses” for the truth. In fact, they are just a case of bad manners, and everyone is usually relieved when they go home.

When someone continually, incessantly presses the issue of the sovereignty of God, or the nature of the sacraments or the errors of the New Perspective on Paul, aren’t they doing the loving, truthful thing that we all ought to be doing? When the little brothers of Saint Archie won’t let us go home without hearing them out, aren’t they showing us that the truth matters, and my discomfort is only because I’m avoiding the real implications of the truth?

No. That is NOT the way it is.

First, let’s clear up a couple of things. I am not a relativist, and I’m not going to write that essay. But I don’t believe anyone has quite the grip on the truth these people seem to imagine they have. Their enthusiasm is blinding them to an undeniable truth–no one holds the truth perfectly, and all of our lives are rift with error, inconsistency, hypocrisy and ignorance.

Now, if we can remember that, I think it will come out like this. Truth is “out there.” God has revealed it. Sometimes, He reveals it to us. We can grasp it. But not perfectly, not consistently and not as purely as we think. We have to match our belief in the truth with a humility about ourselves. Knowing the truth is a privilege, a miracle. It may never happen to us again, and we may abandon what truth we have. Let’s be humble, grateful, and kind, because most of us aren’t walking advertisements for the truth of anything other than depravity.

(It’s particularly revealing how annoying zealots can get to the big issues from any small one. Notice how my pastor buddy was able to get to my salvation directly through the issue of elders? It’s a fun game to play. Just how big a thing can you find hiding in plain sight in the smallest matter of disagreement? Does the whole doctrine of Christ really depend on the details of how I explain justification? Is my entire doctrine of inspiration at stake in my view of the age of the earth?)

Secondly, let’s remember that argument is neither a witness nor a favor if it isn’t invited. If someone asks for the Archie Bunker treatment, then by all means play the defender of the faith or the great salesman. But if he didn’t ask for it, if you brought it up as a way of asserting your knowledge, your superior understanding and your devotion to the cause, you may, just may, be a jerk. As someone said, when a baby gets a hammer, everything’s a nail. Don’t be the baby, and don’t make other people the nail.

So you care about these things. You care so much that you can’t contain your knowledge or excitement or insight. Then ask yourself how to introduce the subject with some class, some kindness, and maybe some love and humility. It’s not a bad time to ask “What would Jesus do?” and don’t assume everyone is the Pharisees and it’s Matthew 23 time.

A few years ago, I started to figure something out. There were people who didn’t want to be around me. Not many, but some. Now it wasn’t hard to engage in all the usual justifications and criticisms to deal with that, and I could easily blow it all off. It wasn’t that I was being rejected, just avoided. At some point, through an offhand comment made by a much older friend, I realized something clearly. I was always making these people listen to my opinions, my arguments, and my insights about everything. They were uncomfortable. I thought it was all important and insightful. They wanted a pleasant lunch.

These were some of the people we’d had in our home for meals who had never reciprocated, and I was starting to suspect why.  I was too much. I came on too strong. My opinions. My insights. My own horn being played loudly and too long in your ear.

Could it be that that if your religion has turned you into a neurotic, others might not want to join it? They might turn out like you.I’m better now. (I’ve given up on real people and just write all my arrogant wise-yammering on here 🙂

Third, the truth, even when it’s true, can be cruel. And it’s wrong–sinful, my pastor friend–to be cruel with the truth. It’s a simple lesson in ethics. We don’t tell a drooling madman with an ax where our children are, even if he asks and even if we believe it is wrong to be less than truthful. We don’t have to say everything we think about Sister Bertha’s suddenly purple hair or

Brother Eddie’s hair that appeared out of nowhere. We don’t have to say everything we think our kids need to hear when they do something wrong. The employee under us isn’t being treated right when we scour her every action for fault and announce it to her at the beginning of each conversation.

And it is not right, or loving or good, to bring the truth of your own theological or Biblical insights into every situation that strikes you. That may just roll over you the wrong way, and you may have scripture to back up your view. But I’m going to stand by that one. What’s needed is an apt word. A timely word. A patient word. A word heard in the context of respect and relationship. What’s not needed is the blinding light of opinion–or even truth–carried along by human energy rather than spiritual timing and preparation.

Part of my strong feeling on this subject comes from working around teenagers from Christian homes. Many of the students I deal with are rebellious kids from strong Christian families. In general, the parents are usually “right” in their issues with these kids, and the kids are usually “wrong” in their responses. No argument from me there. Still, I continually see examples of parents who are obsessed with their teenagers hearing the Bible, being in church, adopting Christian mores and culture, submitting to various Christian rituals and activities. And these parents, as “right” as they are, are as “wrong” as they can be in pressing their case with all the qualities of Saint Archie Bunker.  I frequently find myself emotionally siding with the kids, and telling the parents this profound piece of counseling advice: “Lay off, will ya?”

“Lay off, will ya?” is a very good word, but we need to add one more to it. Sovereignty. Particularly, God’s sovereignty over timing, and over changing hearts and minds.

It is wretched urgency to act as if it all depends on us. It is similar desperation to act as if God needs us to win his battles with our weapons. It is arrogant to act as if our every word and method were His own choice for how people are to be brought to the truth. If we believe in the truth, and if we have confidence in a sovereign God who orders all things to His glory, then can we rest in His timing? Rest, be humble. Wait and win respect. Trust, and follow–rather than force–God’s hand.

It would be far better if we enjoyed the truths we believe, rather than if it appeared we are made anxious by the need to convert others to those truths. Delighting in, exulting in and savoring the truth we believe is a God-honoring witness free from the ministry of Saint Archie. If we yearn for others to know the truth, then may that truth satisfy our own yearnings, even the yearning to be heard and be right. May it bring, as Peter said, the welcome questions that seek to know of the hope that is in us, and why it is a source of joy. It really helps when it IS a source of joy.

And if it doesn’t bring us to that fountain of joy, and bring us delight, trust, worship, and peace, why are we talking about it anyway?

Zero Tolerance Follies

Occasionally, Americans are capable of great things. D-Day. State Fair Corn dogs. Frank Sinatra. The election of Ronald Reagan. The Internet. On other occasions, Americans can really lay an egg. The election of Bill Clinton. The election of Hillary Clinton. The near election of Al Gore. The indictment of Jim Traficant. And the absurd and harmful use of zero tolerance laws to control young people’s behavior.

Zero tolerance laws are the current rage among those in a panic about the free-fall of American youth culture. There are zero tolerance laws about drugs, so that any student with a Tylenol or a vitamin is expelled from school. (No joke.) There are zero tolerance rules about weapons, so that kids with threatening key rings and plastic cutlery are expelled. (No joke.) There are zero tolerance rules about sexual harassment, so if first grade Johnny tries to kiss first grade Julie on the playground, he is expelled. (No joke) Zero tolerance rules will get you sent home for a poem about death, or punching a bully in the nose or teasing a kid with funny glasses. Good thing these laws weren’t on the books when I was dropping my pencil on the floor during the mini-skirt era.

Zero tolerance is the newest plaything of do-it-yourself social engineers of both political persuasions. It is a mindless bull in a china shop, but, gosh, we seem to love it right now. It makes for a great PTA meeting. It sounds wonderful in a speech for school board or President of the United States. It will get a room full of high school students to shut up and pay attention pronto. It is also probably the single worst piece of social policy ever implemented in schools, and about as intellectually and morally bankrupt as conservatives get these days. The zero-tolerance police know just how to solve everything: with the maximum amount of mindless, blunt force.

The school shootings of the past several years created a hysteria of “Do-Something!” among the policy-making class. School uniforms and see-through backpacks didn’t seem severe enough, so now we will send home any kid with a cough drop or a plastic spoon. We will make it simple, said these caring wonks and wonkettes: deviate one micron from normality, and you are history. Wink at your classmate or say you’d like to kick someone’s posterior, and you are headed for military school, if they want to take the risk.

Where can we begin with what is wrong with this kind of thinking? For starters, I don’t want public school teachers and principals mandated imbecility as a matter of policy. There is enough stupidity in life without requiring it. I would like teachers and administrators to use a little judgment in dealing with young people. Even some intelligence. Hey, why not even some compassion? Could we look at the kid and the situation, then do what is appropriate? Even use a bit of discipline? Or you can just throw them out. Whatever.

Do zero tolerance rules make schools safer and more hospitable for learning? Probably. Of course, if everyone who chews gum were sent to an alternative school it would be an improvement as well. Expelling the tardy on their first offense would be an improvement. Cutting off the fingers of kids who annoy everyone by drumming their pencils on the desk seems like an idea with some merit to me. And any teacher without a lesson plan- off with their heads! That guillotine could be a history project.

There is, of course, deterrence to consider. These laws intimidate likely offenders like anti-violence public service ads on MTV stop gangsters from shooting each other. (“Yo, I wuz on my way out the door to whack this punk, when I saw this stop the violence ad on MTV. It really made me think. I sold my gun and became a priest, now…”) A student thinking of sexual harassment or violence will surely think twice when the school has such strong rules. I mean, you don’t want to get in trouble. Especially if you are totally deranged, hearing voices, are a psycho paranoid and filled with rage and destruction. The opinion of the community has got to be taken into account before doing something rash that could get you in jail or on TV. Your parents might be unhappy if you were expelled. These rules must slow down the thoughtful offender. (That paragraph was sarcastic, just in case you missed it.)

The poster children for zero tolerance may soon be the Bush girls, who are about to run afoul of “three strikes and you’re out” laws on the books in Texas, laws aimed at those constant threats to clean yards and Western civilization, college students using fake ID’s. The thought of Barb and Jenna, dressed in stylish yellow prison garb, staring out from behind bars in a Texas jail, doing guest spots on Court TV…well, it may just be what America needs. Go for it girls! One more bottle and you’ll save the country from those beer swilling college mobs!

OK, OK. Enough of this. Let’s get serious for a moment. First of all, zero tolerance is a public relations ploy that makes schools look like they are run by Vlad the Impaler. These rules hurt good kids, they allow no intelligent discretion, they make the community angry and really deal with a complex problem with a bulldozer instead of a scalpel. Pull these policies back a bit, people! Leave yourself some room. Suspend a kid for a day, don’t automatically expel! Show some IQ.

Yes, I hear that voice in the back. I KNOW this is all about lawyers. I know that schools have to protect themselves from the lawsuits that come in our culture anytime a school can be blamed for not doing enough. I might suggest that expelling every kid who colors outside the lines is going to bring about a few lawsuits as well. Heck- I’m about to get a lawyer and sue just for being annoyed! If my valedictorian daughter was expelled and not allowed at graduation for having a kitchen knife in her car after a weekend of moving (true story), I would sue, and sue and sue some more. Then I would hunt down the principal and…and…and… well, do STUFF to him. Wake up people!

Insane rules will not turn around youth culture. I am sorry. It won’t happen with all the zero tolerance rules and school uniforms and curfews and drug assemblies in the universe. But, say the do-gooders in the gallery, isn’t it helpful that at least some adults care? Sure, but the use of administrative and judicial blunt force is not caring. If you would turn that caring into more schools, more teachers, more options in education and more support for parents, you will make a difference. Fund more tutors. Get classroom size down. Quit forcing all kids into highly academic tracts. Rediscover and diversify vocational education. Create varieties of punitive and restorative discipline that changes values and perceptions, not just throws kids to the dogs. Make teachers accountable for teaching. Identify risky kids and get them help, don’t throw them out and forget them. They will wind up in someone’s school. Making your school better and our community worse is not an answer.

Zero tolerance is really zero thinking, and zero justice in the best sense. We can do better if we care enough to work at it.

And let’s not leave Jenna and Barb rotting in jail. Surely we can find a way to let responsible 18 year olds have the privilege of a beer or glass of wine in a bar? Good grief, college kids drink, and our cultural attitude that they cannot drink responsibly has ushered in the most irresponsible generation of young drinkers in history. 60% of 18-20 year old college students drink every weekend. When are we going to end this schizo approach to young adulthood, acting as if the right path is 21 years of puritanical teetotalism followed by moderate drinking as adults? Americans look ridiculous compared to other nations that teach their young people to drink moderately. Instead, we have a binging, rioting mob every time 20 kids can find a few beers. It will require a major cultural shift to change the drinking culture among college students, but it is certainly possible to be realistic and not play such a ridiculous game of denial with young people.

They can vote, drive and serve in the military. We give them jobs, condoms and unparalleled freedom. They should be able to order a beer or glass of wine in an establishment. Drinking is an American rite of passage. Regular drunkenness is now badge of adulthood as well. These two are not the same thing. Perhaps we could make it a little less exotic if we allowed a limited legal drinking privilege to 18 year olds, and expected them to act like they are worthy of that trust. And do we really want a country where three instances of a 19 year old drinking a beer sends them to jail for six months? Or even goes on their record at all? So what?

Americans have a habit of passing absurdly tough laws when they don’t want to do the hard work of changing their communities, families and culture. “Three strikes and you’re out” and the zero tolerance follies are expressions of cultural inertia and apathy. Conservatives should stop handing massive doses of authority to people who don’t know what to do with it and start working for reasonable laws, reasonable sentences and common sense cultural renewal. A police state is not a good thing class.

And by the way girls- the liberals in Austin know who your daddy is, and they hate him. The NY Post has reported that the only reason you are getting busted like this is the anti-Bush contingent will not let you get by with jaywalking down there. You are going to have to realize that while Chelsea Clinton could have had human sacrifice on toast while sitting in a lesbian truck stop every weekend, you can’t blink your eyes in church. Welcome to the unbiased liberal universe.

Say Anything

Say Anything
The ad man triumphs at the church on the corner

I am a hopeless reader of church advertisements. When I can get my hands on a newspaper, I do not read the sports sections or the comics. I read church advertisements. For sheer entertainment, they are hard to beat.

Americans have a special relationship with the advertising industry. We love to be wooed, and the advertising gurus love to play Romeo to our Juliet. We’ve endured enough advertising to be savvy to what’s going on, but that hasn’t dampened our relish for being tantalized to buy or eat or join.

In fact, advertising is a unique cross-pollination of lying and art. We don’t mind being lied to as long as it is done with style, emotion and undisguised gall. Advertising is a specialized form of flattery, assuring us that our patronage is not only extremely significant for the one soliciting our business, but also mystically significant for us. Nothing quite approaches the ritual of evangelical revivalism like the promises made to the consumer considering a major purchase. A choir singing “Just As I Am” would be remarkably appropriate.

Evangelicals bought into the advertising mindset long ago as the post-war evangelical denominations took the corporate model as their template for doing everything from Sunday School to personal evangelism. In the sixties, the Jesus people joyfully appropriated advertising slogans as the preferred mode of proclamation, thus birthing a generation of bumper-sticker sermons and t-shirt theologies.

I could call “Jesus- He’s the real thing!” somewhat charming, but evangelicals didn’t stop there. The power of advertising is a seductive, tangible power that gets results. The right logo, the well-placed phrase, the cool introductory video, the city-wide advertising campaign: these are tools that evangelicals have come to rely on. And things are well nigh out of hand.

I have no objection to good communication. We ought to be able to tell what our churches are all about so that someone can get an accurate introduction to what we believe and what we do. I am all for description, information and directions to the parking lot. I can even handle a spiffy pic of the pastor’s hair.  But advertisement is about creating impressions; in fact, it is increasingly about creating imaginary realities. Without embarrassment, churches have begun saying whatever will hit the target audience and create curiosity. The result is increasingly a pack of well told lies, and a betrayal of some of the basic tenets of the Gospel.

Things start innocently enough with a well-placed, coded adjective. We’re a “Spirit-Filled” church. This sends the signal to certain people about what to expect and separates the church from the dead wood across the street at First Presbyterian. But it also makes a claim for a certain kind of reality, a reality that the church seems to say is available at THAT church as opposed to most others. This is patently ridiculous and plainly dishonest.

I have an acquaintance who delights in criticizing liturgical worship and exalting the free-form, Charismatic stylings of various fellowships he has attended. He believes liturgy is a certain indication of a dead church full of doomed and deceived dupes. I would like to smack him, or at least press upon him by vivid example the possibility that a few more moves and noises have little to do with the Spirit’s presence in one congregation versus another. The fact is, he is now perpetuating the same tale told by the church advertisement.

But churches will not stop with the occasional adjectival seasoning. Soon the whole meal is being cooked by advertisers. “A Real Church for Real People.” “A warm, loving fellowship of people who care about you!!” “Come hear practical, spirit-anointed messages by a man of God.” “Continuous Revival!!” “A Church with Christ at Heart and You in Mind.” “Such and Such Church: Where You Matter.” “People Being Transformed By the Power of God.” “Healing and Miracles in Every Service.” “Where God Touches Lives!!” “Dynamic Music from our Praise Band will take you into the presence of God.” “A dynamic youth program!” (Dynamic is very good.)

Ok. Ok. Enough. What is going on here? From the bowels of some church growth conference has come the worldly wisdom that we need to “cast a vision” of who we are. In other words, exaggerate up a storm to outdo the other guy. Lure, lie, woo, beg, pretend, spin, deceive, tell a whopper. So what if the actual congregation is not quite what is advertised? So what if the pressure is now on to produce the goods? We’re trying to see ourselves in a way that others will find appealing. This is fine with cars or Jacuzzis, but not with churches. I know it makes a cool brochure, but that’s not the point.

The Gospel is not about how wonderful the church is or how dynamic the pastor is or how friendly the people are. If that is all true, word will get out, trust me. If you have to put it on a billboard or an ad or video, it’s spin. And the Gospel isn’t spin about us. It’s a straightforward proclamation about Christ. Remember?  “For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive,  but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.  For we never came with words of flattery…” (I Thessalonians 2:3-5)

When people are told that the church has all the benefits of a store or a club or a product, they are not hearing the message of sinners saved by grace through faith, not are they being prepared to hear it in a real community of fallen people gathered around the cross. They are hearing the crafted ploy of exaggeration, and sooner or later they will figure it out. The pastor may be a whiz, but he won’t visit grandma in the hospital. The church may have a heart for God, but nobody invited you over for dinner. The Spirit is moving in the services, but not you are remarkably similar to the person who walked in the door six months ago, problems and all. And that dynamic youth pastor ran off with some kid’s mom. Welcome to the real world.

I have a lot of people in self-imposed church exile who write to me, and I am beginning to believe that part of the problem is too many of them believed it. The ads. The hype. The spin. The video intro. The actual truth about people and the institutions they build may be disillusioning and embarrassing, but it’s important. It’s very important for those of us who worship a God of truth to put the focus on Him and His Gospel instead of our little parades.

I don’t want to see the church become a pop-up ad proclaiming instant weight loss from grapefruit pills. We aren’t there yet, but we are getting there fast. Its time to ask the image enthusiasts to spend some time keeping it real and a little less time tinkering with the graphics on the projection system.

I believe it was Job who said “Please be quiet! That’s the smartest thing you could do.” (Job 13:5)

Occasional Missionaries; Accidental Tourists

Occasional Missionaries; Accidental Tourists
I’ve got to ask some questions about all these mission trips

Late Night Mission Trips

Several weeks ago I was up late and happened to scan past one of the twelve–a good Bible number– religious cable channels on my TV, when I saw a show about five college-aged guys on a mission trip in Thailand. Our school has ministered to many Thai students, so I stopped and watched for a few moments, hoping to learn a bit about missions in Thailand and how these young men were sharing the Gospel with the Thai people.

Technically and visually, the show was extremely well done, and obviously owed quite a debt in its approach and production to reality shows like “The Real World.” We were introduced to each of the scrubby, twenty-something young men, and learned that this was one of many “extreme” missions experiences these guys had undertaken in this series. I noticed a lot of time devoted to their interactions with one another, and very little time spent talking about missionary approaches to the Thai. I don’t recall any mention of the church in Thailand or of the strategy for evangelism and church planting in Thailand.

Soon I learned that these young men were headed into the inaccessible and primitive northern country of Thailand to spend one day “telling the villagers that Jesus loved them.” None of the missionaries spoke the language of these people or any Thai people. They had employed a very reluctant guide to get them through the hellish jungle, but no translators. They brought a small supply of gifts, and had no plan for establishing a relationship with the tribe other than to show up, deliver their gifts and message, and return to civilization. All on film, of course.

Most of the program was occupied with the difficult trip through the jungle. True to their reality show roots, a great deal of time was expended on leeches that attached themselves to the intrepid missionaries (cf “Fear Factor”) and the painful scars left when they were removed. This was horrendous to watch, but the guys kept going. It was the kind of stuff to make middle schoolers cringe in delight. Outstanding religious television. Way better than Rod Parsley. (The leeches, by the way, dominated the program, and we learned far more about them than about the Thai people who were the goal of this trek through the jungle.)

The last few minutes of the show wrapped things up…Oh yeah…we never actually saw any footage of their arrival in the village or their “work” there, but we were assured things went as well as could be expected without a translator. At least no one was killed and eaten, which would have gone along very well with the leech footage. We saw at least three scenes of the guys praying together, and were told that one of those meetings was a “prayer breakthrough.” The guys got along well enough, so there wasn’t much opportunity to enjoy camera shots of the guys carping about one another, a reality show staple.

What we learned was that missions was a lot like an Indiana Jones expedition. The adventures of five totally unprepared, but nonetheless willing men, taking off to the edge of the world to tell the unreached about Jesus. In L.L. Bean gear and in English. The scrubby adventurers were willing to endure hardship for Christ, and that was commendable. They were obviously zealous and serious about evangelism.

Sadly, these fellows appeared to know almost nothing about missions. (Though we were invited to dial an 800 number and “learn more about missions” at the end of the program.) They are part of a significant movement in evangelicalism and one that needs, in my opinion, a second look.

My Missions Trips

I probably heard of “missions trips” growing up in a large fundamentalist SBC church, but I don’t remember any actual testimonies about excursions as a prominent part of my church experience. We occasionally had missionaries come and speak, but our folks didn’t pack up and go on mission trips.

As a youth minister, I heard Tony Campolo talk about mission trips to Haiti, and Group Magazine began to offer missions experiences as part of their ministry. As a result, while serving in a suburban church in western Kentucky, in 1980 I organized a mission trip for my youth group to eastern Kentucky. I was so poorly organized and so ignorant of what a mission trip should involve that I would be embarrassed to meet anyone who remembered that project. In 1982 we went to central Indiana on a mission trip that convinced me to never, ever take another one without doing an extensive pre-trip visit first. Suffice it to say that when we arrived and the pastor didn’t know who we were or what we were doing there, I knew we were in for an interesting week. I also learned it was relatively easy, without planning and forethought, to waste a lot of someone’s time and money.

When I returned to full time youth ministry in 1984, I began taking groups on inner city mission trips to Boston and Chicago. I organized our entire high school youth ministry program around these trips, and used them to teach Bible, discipleship, leadership and evangelism, as well as missions. Working with African-American and Asian congregations, our students learned a lot about how churches were planted and the problems and opportunities in urban, multi-cultural evangelism. While we did enjoy the cities we visited, our time was primarily spent preparing, teaching, learning, and serving. I was immensely proud of the missions program we created, and heartbroken when my successor took the funding and took the students to the beach.

I share that background to say that I do not have a negative attitude toward mission trips. My mission trips are some of my happiest and proudest moments in ministry. I’ve utilized them and I believe I know their potential to change lives and create disciples committed to the cause of Kingdom expansion and service. Many of the students that I involved in those experiences have become “world Christians” and enthusiastic supporters and participants in missions in their churches and elsewhere.

My favorite mission trips were two trips to work with Uptown Baptist Church in inner-city Chicago. We did backyard Bible Clubs and worked in the meal program for the homeless. It was a great experience, but the best part of it was that Uptown Church saw their ministry to us as just as important as our ministry to them. They took the time to educate us about urban missions. They showed us how one church was actually eight multi-lingual, multi-cultural congregations. We learned of the unique needs and strengths of poor, urban families and the churches they attend. They introduced us to the issues of worship and leadership in a way that forever changed the way I looked at inner-city congregations. Upon reflection, in many ways we–the rich southern Baptist church youth group–were the mission project. We were the beneficiaries of the mission and ministry of Uptown Baptist Church.

It was as a result of my mission trip experiences that I began to see some of the problems and limitations of mission trips. Later, as I learned more and more about the worldwide Christian movement and the real work of reaching the unchurched world, I began to see that mission trips had the potential to be useful, but also had the potential to be a wasteful and self-indulgent exercise. They could actually become a way of profoundly misunderstanding what missions is all about. Are we helpful to the cause of missions when we come as “Accidental Tourists?” Even in the name of Jesus?

Intermission: What is “missions” anyway?

That’s a great question. Here’s a good answer: By “missions,” most missiologists mean the creation of an indigenous, self-supporting, self-perpetuating New Testament church planting movement in every people group in the world. This fulfills the Great Commission of preaching the Gospel to every nation, and making disciples who obey the teachings of Jesus in every nation. It is a significant definition for evaluating whatever we call “missions.”  It means that missions is not only something that I do, but is a movement much larger than myself that I support and encourage. It has serious implications for how we think about “mission trips” or other popular mission projects.

Not too many years ago, missions was conceived by most people as a matter of western Christians going into unreached countries and making converts. The shift to seeing missions as the creation of indigenous church planting movements means the role of the western missionary–short and long term–has changed significantly. Missions strategy has changed significantly. Well-off churches and individuals with discretionary income can make an enormous difference in the world missions picture, but perhaps not as we once thought.

In his groundbreaking book, Revolution in World Missions, K. P. Yohannon suggests that Westerners should entirely change the way they see their role in the missions enterprise. With the wealth, resources, technology and training available to westerners, church planting movements can be supported and encouraged much more efficiently without having to undertake the enormous cost of getting westerners to the mission field and supporting them there. Yohannon’s ministry, Gospel for Asia, has set a standard in showing what can be done in supporting indigenous Christians, who for a few thousand dollars a year can support a family, attend a Bible school, build a church and go to Bible college.

Coming to see that missions is about the Kingdom and not about a personal experience (for an individual or group) is an important insight for Christians today. How can I best support and participate in God’s worldwide purpose? How I answer that question depends on what I have come to know and believe about not only Biblical truth, but the total picture of world missions. Coming to understand what is really needed, useful and helpful may require humility from enthusiastic western evangelicals eager to travel and return with stories of how they helped change the world. Can evangelicals embrace the truth that, at least to some extent, personal missions involvement may take many forms, and may best be done by NOT going overseas at all?

Yohannon makes it plain that there will always be a place for westerners on the mission field, particularly as teachers, technicians, specialists and supporters. Until an indigenous work grows in every way, there will always be some ways that outsiders can serve and be helpful. But in most cases, western short-term missionaries are not as crucial or desirable as we like to believe. It would be good if more missions experts would say this, but the fear of dampening overall support for missions is strong. We have to tell ourselves the truth.

With this understanding of missions, the “mission trip” needs to be looked at again.

The Better Mission Trip

Imagine that Faith Church takes a mission trip to Brazil.  While on the field, the mission group may build or remodel a building. They may bring in Bibles or other Christian literature. They may lead backyard Bible clubs or revival services. They may see some of the local poverty and participate in feeding and clothing of children. Certainly, the relationships built with local Christians will be a blessing. The team will return full of enthusiasm for missions and will likely plan another trip next year.

The church and individuals can easily invest $50,000 in such a trip so that they may personally have the experience. From that investment, much good will come. It is hopefully (and demonstrably) true that some of these individuals will contribute significant amounts of money and support to missions in the future, and will encourage their churches to be more involved in missions. It is also demonstrably true that the spiritual value of such a mission trip can’t be measured, and entire lifetimes of service to Christ may be born out of these kinds of experiences.

It is also true that westerners probably overestimate the value of these mission trips to the indigenous Christians they visit. (I am in no way trying to put a price tag on evangelism, friendship or encouragement.) Often, keeping a group of Americans feeling busy and useful is a large job. The excitement of such a visit makes a wonderful memory, but how many churches have considered what might be the effect of inviting a national to come to Faith Church, tell, in detail, about needs on the field and among the churches, and then committing resources to that mission enterprise without groups of church members going overseas?

Such a national Christian might say, for instance, that several church buildings could be built for the cost of sending two or three westerners. Several preachers could go to Bible college training for the cost of a few westerners coming to their culture. Bibles and literature could be translated. Bicycles could be purchased. If Americans are going to be sent in, why not select personnel with needed skills? Doctors, nurses, dentists, agriculturists, teachers, engineers, computer geeks and so on. If such a list of needs were presented without a request to send a large group of church members to do a “mission trip experience,” how many churches would respond? More importantly, why would this approach be less appealing?

Do we understand which approach actually best involves Faith Church in the world missions enterprise?

It is obvious that some of the popularity of mission trips comes from American values and the appeal of an overseas adventure. Americans see themselves as the “good guys” They believe that persons in other nations view us much as we view ourselves. That is, of course, a complex topic, but it is safe to say that our perception of ourselves on the mission field may be somewhat generous. In working with missionary leaders on the field and hearing their honest reactions to the various groups that come to help them, I now realize that a mission group can be either an asset or a lot of trouble. But the less effective group will probably never know it. They have their own agenda, and it may or may not have anything to do with what is really needed.

Perhaps the better mission trip would be to send a “fact-finding” or exploratory team. Rather than go to work, this more specialized team would go to pray, learn and observe. They would immerse themselves in understanding the opportunities for missions on the field, and would return to motivate the church to send money, resources, sponsorship and personnel to the field. This kind of ministry investment seems more in line with the real nature of missions.

In fact, churches should consider the importance of making every church member feel they are involved in a significant way in missions, and not just those who are able to raise or spend thousands of dollars to go. It is not healthy for a church to have thirty “world travelers” if the rest of the congregation is largely ignorant and uninvolved in missions.

Mission Trip Questions

Perhaps the best way to further address this subject is simply to raise questions with little comment. Certainly, my own point of view is relatively easy to discern in the questions I ask, but it isn’t my role to supply answers for any church or potential missionary. These are important questions, and are at least an effort to move in the direction of taking some of the energy apparent in the mission trip phenomenon and channeling it into as many useful and helpful avenues as possible.

How important is it for American Christians to go on mission trips to provide activities for children or hand out food and clothing? I say this with full knowledge that probably some of the best memories many people have is spending time with children on mission trips, but the question still needs to be asked. In the big picture of missions, is it really as important as we tended to think it was at the time? Or do these kinds of experiences really tell us more about what appeals to westerners and their mistaken concepts of missions? (Please don’t write me and say “Well, it was important to that kid,” or “If it changed one life…”)

Could the overseas responses to American preachers be more of a cultural than a spiritual phenomenon? I have no doubt that the reason many American preachers return to the mission field again and again is the extreme responsiveness to the public invitation, and the resulting validation of that preacher’s ministry when shared back home. Are we being honest about what is really going on here?

What percentage of mission trips are spent engaging in significant amounts of tourism, pure and simple? This is a laugh line among a lot of youth ministers, but it is a real issue. My groups would spend several hours a day touring wherever we happened to be. It was a good time. It wasn’t missions. It was tourism. I am sure some “beach evangelism” is more beach than evangelism. Getting young people to the mission field requires motivation, but is it really fair to call the result missions? (I certainly know that many short term missions trips have no “tourism” as part of the program.)

How are mission trips related to church planting? There are many different ways this question will be answered. Some trips are directly related to a church plant, while some have nothing to do with church planting at all. I would suggest that if a missions effort can’t be connected–clearly and obviously–to church planting or strengthening an existing church, it may be of questionable value.

Do Americans really need to travel overseas to do confrontational evangelism in a culture where they don’t even know the language? It sounds great as a story. Is it really what missions needs to be about?

Do college-age Christians understand that the mission field doesn’t need “missionaries?” It needs people with skills? Agriculture, teaching, engineering, medicine, computers, translation and so on. Why are so many young Christians choosing to be missionaries, but not preparing to offer a skill when they arrive? In allowing and encouraging so many short term college mission trips, are we fostering the idea that being a full time “mission trip guy” is actually a ministry? It distresses me that most of the missions-motivated young people I meet are concerned with studying Bible, but unconcerned with acquiring a useable skill. It is humbling to say this, but Westerners really don’t have much to teach our friends on the mission field when it comes to the Bible. (Other than at the very specialized level of seminary.) They are often far ahead of us in zeal for obeying scripture, establishing churches, evangelism and so on. (Thank God for one young man I know who is training to be a carpenter, and wants to use that skill overseas!)

Do Americans understand the incredible mission opportunities here in the States, particularly with Muslims and other internationals? Every major metro area is full of internationals, and ministry to them is ministry to their nation, family and people group. Student ministry and international outreach in America is good missions overseas. And leaves a lot more money to send overseas. Even unreached people groups can often be ministered to by finding students in the states from those countries. We are currently ministering to two Mongolian students right now. Do I really need to go to Mongolia?

Why aren’t more churches offering the Perspectives Course or other missions education to the people most interested in mission trips? Youth, college and young adults. It really doesn’t take long to teach the most basic and helpful concepts of the current world missions strategy. But I know many highly involved “mission trippers” who don’t have a clue about what is really going on in the world of missions, or what is needed to “finish the task.”

Does it appear to anyone else that some mission trip ministries do a very poor job and take a lot of money to do it? I’ve seen enough to know there are some shady ministries making some big money and putting kids at some risk, all the while calling it “missions.” This ought to stop.

How many denominational resources are dedicated to getting Americans overseas on short term trips, when those same agencies know these trips serve little real purpose other than public relations? Mission agencies need to tell the truth, and encourage finding the best ways to support missions. Many churches could make a big difference in the cause of Christ overseas without sending planes full of Americans to lead Bible clubs or hand out donuts.

Shouldn’t we be discouraging the “Gonzo/Extreme” attitude exemplified by recent stories of American students with no real connection to existing strategies going undercover into Muslim countries ?  I appreciate bravery, and I know there must be risk-takers, and even martyrs.. But I am not impressed that “daring exploits” always qualify as good missions or good examples. Sneaking into a Muslim country to show the Jesus film is courageous, but is it really the direction we want to encourage young missionaries to go? This is a controversial question, but it needs to be asked. Some martyrs and sufferers are worthy, and some are just plain presumptuous and may actually hinder the growth of the Kingdom. I have friends in Muslim countries working in secular jobs to allow them to minister as Christians, but they are connected to the missions work and strategy in those countries and elsewhere, and are not just taking “gonzo” risks on their own.

Shouldn’t the current emphasis on short term mission “trips” be replaced by an emphasis on the preparation, knowledge and skills needed to really help the mission cause? We need more students studying translation, broadcasting and cross-cultural evangelism, and fewer just going to knock around for a couple of weeks. Every missions agency knows what they need on the field, but few Christians care enough to even ask. We need straight talk to students about preparation, and how to develop themselves into someone really useful, even on a short term trip overseas.
If mission trips continue to be a major part of evangelical life, could they be refocused and refined into more effective ventures for the cause of missions in the long-term? Could an effort be made to alter the experience to something more substantial, significant and really helpful? It doesn’t mean mission trips should stop, but that we should be able to admit that a good thing can always be improved and that more of the same isn’t always better.

As a constructive suggestion, I hope churches and youth groups will look for work that CANNOT be done without an outside group coming in. For example, my church is very small, and a group coming in to do a week of outreaches and ministries in the community and repair to our facility would be a legitimate help because much of this ministry is impossible for us to do ourselves. There is a great deal of practical ministry that isn’t “missions” per se, but is simply serving the Lord by helping the weaker brother. These sorts of experiences have real value, even though they are more “service” than “missions.”

Several years ago, one of my closest friends went to England with his family to hand out the Jesus Video to Muslims. It’s his story, not mine, so I won’t tell it. It was, in short, a bad experience. From top to bottom. I could tell that a real interest and enthusiasm had been drowned in the realities of a flawed project designed to involve Americans in missions. I doubt that my friend would ever undertake this again.

But then, in all honesty, was taking videos to England, at the cost of thousands of dollars, really the best way for my friend to support missions to Muslims in England or elsewhere? Was taking his family to England the best way for him to be excited and involved? I believe that supporting existing work with the funding he devoted to the trip, financing more translations of the Jesus movie, being involved in spreading the word about this ministry to millions would be more appropriate. I believe that, in hindsight, he would probably agree.

Our current mindset, however, is that the “mission trip experience” should be for my friend and his family. They will get such a blessing. He will get so much out of it. And he did, but not what I believe he expected or intended. I believe such experiences could easily be multiplied, and it would be increasingly obvious that the cause of missions is not served very well by large numbers of short term mission trips often primarily justified by their effects on the missionary and the sending church. The cause would be significantly furthered by a higher level of missions awareness, more targeted support, linking up resources with needs, and a greater understanding of how to encourage and rejoice in church planting and church growth movements around the world.

I believe missions is a key part of a Christian’s discipleship in this world, especially for American Christians living in such a blessed land and time. Short term trips can be part of that discipleship, but perhaps there are many ways to follow Christ around the world without taking money that could build churches and support local pastors and sending it to the airlines.

Trashing The Moral ABC’s

As a capitalist and a moderate libertarian, I have no problem with the merchandising of Mr. Mathers’ product to the masses. It’s a free market, so have at it. I have no objection to the right of American consumers to lay down their hard-earned money to purchase the fruits of Mr. Mathers’ troubled childhood. Here is a man victimized enough to croon about doing in his mother AND his wife. Even country music hasn’t gotten quite this morose. When the Dixie Chicks did in Earl, he kinda deserved it.

What does get my attention is how many people, of various ages, intelligences and biases, seem unable to say that what Eminem and other violent rappers are talking about is wrong. You know, murder is wrong. Rape- wrong. Shooting people– wrong. Threatening homosexuals- wrong. This isn’t difficult stuff. Or at least that’s what I thought.

At first, I thought it was just the kids who listened to the music. I’d ask them what they thought about the violence and hate in Eminem’s lyrics, and they would say profound things like, “He’s just joking,” or “Nobody is going to go out and do that stuff just because he listens to a song,” or “He’s just playing a character. To which I would glibly say “OK, that may be true, but could we agree that these things are wrong? The things he’s talking about are wrong?…..right?”

They just look at me blankly, then shake their heads. No go on that wrong stuff.

Lately, I hear this from what are traditionally considered more serious adult voices. Writers for SPIN magazine. Representatives of the Academy. Music writers and critics from serious magazines. Media pundits. The academic defenders of hip-hop art and culture. They have a lot to say about the controversy that accompanies the music and the shock element inherent in the musical style. Abrasive. Non-conformist. Real. But don’t wait for someone to say murder is wrong. They won’t say it. They writhe with the tortured manner of those saying something reaaallly stupid, but they say it anyway. It’s creepy.

In what has to be a conundrum of titanic proportions, defenders of Eminem won’t even say his bigotry and violence aimed at homosexuals is wrong. If Eminem were John Ashcroft, this would really be interesting. As it is, it’s just pathetic. Gay activists have discovered that Mr. Mathers has a permanent immunity from anything he might say about our culture’s most sensitive community of perpetual victims. They protest without the support of their usually dependable liberal supporters. Very, very weird.

What we are witnessing is an extraordinary abandonment of moral basics on a level so fundamental that the logical following steps are truly beyond comprehension. Perhaps an analogy will help.

Imagine if your  child’s school began abandoning the ABC’s. Students who wrote “words” with incomprehensible personal symbols or nonsense combinations of letters were not corrected or told they were wrong. The old alphabet, which makes possible the formation of words recognized by anyone who knows the symbol system, would be replaced by whatever mark the student felt best represented his own idea. Your child is having a great time, but they are also slowly losing the ability to communicate, one of the fundamental planks of civilized society.

When you go to the school to complain about what is happening, the teachers and administration listen politely, but they are firm on their new position: they will not say your child’s work is wrong. It may be controversial and shocking, but it reflects your child’s unique personality and experience. It is a response to the chaos of the modern world.  They refuse to do anything differently, even when you say they are dooming children to illiteracy, poverty and confusion.

It seems to me that we’re in much the same situation. The moral ABC’s are being discarded, replaced by the incredible notion that we can’t call murder, bigotry and hatred wrong. The results of this direction cannot make anyone sleep well at night. 

Our kids are buying this trashing of the moral alphabet wholesale. Eminem, ICP and other shock acts have become the medium for transferring the relativistic worldview into the hearts of a generation. They will defend these  popular culture heroes unconditionally, urged onward by a commendable loyalty to free speech without the necessary tempering of common sense.

Perhaps most confusing characters of all are the many adults who play this game. It doesn’t take a doctorate in moral philosophy to know what happens when we can no longer tell Johnny it is wrong to hit Sally with a stick during recess. Or tell little Sid that it is wrong to want to cut mommy’s head off. Francis Schaefer pointed out that the problem with atheism was that you could teach it in the classroom, but you couldn’t live like it was true when you went home to your wife and kids. I’d like to see if the various apologists for this music really stick to their guns when they are raising their own children. Something tells me that these people don’t tell their children that its perfectly fine to write poetry about killing “fags,” as Mr. Mathers puts it.

Indictments of popular culture are everywhere among conservatives. Sometimes I think the vigorous defense of Eminem is just a way of telling cultural conservatives that their whining will never intimidate the arts community. For every Joe Leiberman or Bill Bennett carping at Hollywood, there will be an army of apologists and leering consumers buying this stuff for spite. It’s not that Eminiem and ICP are such gifted artists, it’s simply that these are the bad boys out there spitting on the Puritans.

I have enough personal immaturity in me to understand this impulse, and its not totally useless. Every time some babysitter of the Nanny State says I shouldn’t do something I am overwhelmed with the urge to do it publicly and with news coverage. What you’ve got to consider is an old piece of wisdom that said you shouldn’t cut off your nose to spite your face. In defending a principle, you may burn your house down. And what’s the end result of that? In this case, its worse than losing a nose or a house. We’re cursing an entire culture. And losing the moral alphabet we cannot afford to lose. Someone tell the idiots that once its gone, you won’t get it back.

I note that Eminem is having a bad time of it in the UK. If the guy is getting real heat in Tony Blair’s Britain, then maybe there is hope after all. But I doubt it. While police and the tabloids react in shock, some parent is buying the cd, explaining that it’s all just kids having fun. Undgrtt jbddss jurcssif rnngdsas.