So, I started taking a class a couple of months ago.
I’ve been driving a little over an hour south every Monday night and sitting in an upstairs room of another church building for a couple of hours with a handful of other folks. It’s been a hefty time commitment but it’s also been rewarding. There’s homework each week and 3-4 hours worth of reading to prepare for that homework. When you add that to the actual cost of the course, there’s a substantial investment in everything.
The class is built out mostly for lay people but they’re very excited when a pastor attends the course. And it’s stated purpose is to dive deeply into God’s call on our lives concerning missions and making disciples of all nations. It’s the kind of class that’s aiming at shaping paradigms and they’re very good at at.
And I’ve decided to quit.
I’m not typically a quitter. I loath leaving projects undone. I don’t even like it when other people leave them undone. I get frustrated when I’m around people who try to keep multiple projects going at once. And it’s not because I can’t keep up with the chaos— It’s because everything NOT currently being worked on feels to me like it’s been momentarily given up on. I even have this weird thing where while eating, I legitimately have to remind myself to eat from each item on my plate instead of finishing one thing and then moving on to finish the next thing. (Don’t tell anybody, though). Judge me all you want (and there’s plenty of material to keep you busy) but the reality is that I don’t like to quit things—
But unfortunately, I believe that I need to walk away from my class.
I started my class because I know a handful of people who have already taken it. They all raved about how valuable the class had been for them and how they would like others to take it as well. I was convinced enough, that I registered assuming that once completed, I would actually bring the class to my own church and thereby make it more accessible for others in my area.
I walked in as someone who already adores missions. I walked in as someone who had already read a considerable portion of the course material from other sources. I was ecstatic to find a way of articulating these good things to other people. And to lay all of my card on the table, I personally think that the first 4 weeks of the course might just be some of the best missions curriculum I’ve ever seen.
But then I started to notice some things.
Things would be said in passing— comments would be made (in the reading assignments and in class by the lecturers) concerning missiological methods that had been heavily critiqued in years past. These comments carried a tone of bitterness about those critiques. They carried behind them the assumption that if the Church just got out of it’s own way, then we would finally accomplish what God had called us to. These comments, which were present all the way back in Week 1, started out as just a passing thing, but by Week 5, they were making up a significant portion of the course.
And I’ve come to believe that this is by design.
I am a frequent traveler in the land of dissenting positions. I’m intentional about surrounding myself with the other side of the argument because I believe the doctrine of sin. I’m confident that I have blind spots. I’ve seen them rear up and ruin otherwise great things. And I’m just barely smart enough to at least try and protect myself from them. There’s plenty of room on my reading list for arguments I disagree with. And because of this reality, I’m seeing a trajectory I’ve seen a few times before.
It’s a trajectory that starts out by testing the waters. Positive things are said about controversial subjects in an attempt to judge how familiar and passionate someone else is about all of it. It’s never an outright approval, just a glancing compliment— An “at least they got this part right” kind of moment. And often times, that’s a truthful statement. It’s rare that something is just a complete train wreck and you can’t find positive things to say about it. This however, leaves the second party with either A) Agreeing or B) Being seen as argumentative for bringing up all the “yeah buts”.
After mentioning a couple of positives of the controversial topic, it’s then time to dwell for a while on the failures of the current administration. In the case of my class, it’s spending the next few weeks unfolding how the status quo (our current missiological methods) have failed us in all of the possible ways that can be thought of— Even if some of the things on the list are only loosely associated, or possibly even completely false. The goal here is not to have a realistic discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of anything— It’s to exhaust you and get you to believe that ANY other option would be better than the one we currently suffer from. It’s to get you believing that our current form needs to be rescued from those who would wickedly hold it back.
And then comes the historical argument.
Those who write history get to be in charge of how the players are perceived. And if I can make you think that my solution isn’t just a good answer to the problem but something history has always been pointing towards, well then I don’t actually have to deal with your objections, I just have to accuse you of standing in the way of progress. No one wants to stand in the way of progress. It’s a cultural death sentence.
This is much more difficult to see in the setting of a conversation, but when packaged in a book or a class, it will often come in the form of a sketch of historical eras. (Although, I’ve seen some very dedicated work done on cocktail napkins.) This doesn’t mean that historical sketches are always bad. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that history doesn’t have eras that we can point to— But who gets to define the terms? Who gets to draw the lines? And is it ever possible that the one responsible for drawing them is holding a major axe to grind?
So, if our current form is failing us and if history is telling us that we are beyond ready now to progress past all of this antiquated nonsense, I wonder where we ought to find this revolutionary next step? And so, the argument goes: “Hey do remember that thing we talked about a while ago? That thing that was maligned by all those musty old folks who didn’t understand where the world was going? Remember those things that it was good at? It’s time for the next era of ________!”
It’s an incredibly predictable trajectory. It’s a trajectory that plays out over and again. And sadly, it’s used over and over again because it works.
I’ve looked ahead in the book for my class. I know exactly where it’s going. It’s a pathway that’s not too difficult to pick out for me anymore. As such, I’ve decided to walk away. “But Stephen, that sounds like quitting!” You’re right, it does. But in the real-world situations that we live in, my class has no mechanism for dialogue and exchange. The opportunity for honest questions and “yeah buts” does not physically exist. To bring up objections in any kind of group setting would be immediately considered to be antagonistic. Could it be that this is by design as well?
“But isn’t there an argument for seeing it through to the end?” Sure there is. And anybody who hasn’t truthfully engaged with the counter arguments to their own held positions needs to seriously consider that option. But I’ve read most of the books that these smaller articles are all pulled from. I’ve heard all their arguments before. I didn’t agree with them the first time.
So, what can I do? I can write a letter to the leadership of my class and the course that sponsors it. Which I have done. I can call brothers and sisters in Christ to reconsider their worldview. Which I have. I can point to the scriptures and call them to submit themselves and their missiological strategies to God’s word instead of (what I believe to be) pragmatism. All good and necessary.
But I can also humble myself.
I can repent of my own preconceived ideas about missions and methods. I can take the opportunity to lay my assumptions and my preferences against the framework of God’s word, and I can do the much more difficult job of critiquing myself. I can even do inventory on how I present the arguments for tested good things. Do I follow the patterns of underhanded trajectories so frequently used by others? Or do I let truth and God’s design for missions speak for itself?
I’m quitting a class because I’m busy enough and the time commitment is too much to keep up with something I already know that I won’t use. But the real work? The real work is searching my own heart and pressing deeply into God’s plan and call… Well that work is just beginning.