Archives For From Strangers to Missionaries

A couple weeks ago, I wrapped up the blog series “from strangers to missionaries” with a compilation post and summary. Or so I thought.

Since then more conversations have occurred, and I’d like to offer a few more posts that I believe could be helpful to those of you attempting to work this out. One stream of conversation has had to do with the online platform I use called NextDoor. I started using NextDoor to create an online hub for my immediate neighborhood with the purpose of owning my own square mile. Now more than six months in, I have experienced some highs and lows in seeking to live as a missionary to my own neighborhood. I have said this to more than one person: being a missionary to my neighborhood has to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

But it’s worth it. It’s what God has called me, called us, to do.

In our world today, pathways into people’s lives have changed. In times past, permission was given to enter through their front door (literally). People were much more accessible and approachable. Neighbors felt like neighbors. Now neighbors are more like strangers than ever before. People are more insulated and isolated through television, computers, video games, and other indoor hobbies that breed insular lives. People seem to always being in a hurry, with no time to talk and take every measure possible to prevent that from happening (tinted windows, gated entrances, security systems, and fenced in yards).

What I’ve discovered about my neighborhood, in particular, is that almost everyone is a transplant to our city and this neighborhood. The overwhelming majority have lived here less than five years. Several languages and nearly a dozen nationalities are represented in this diverse group of 1,400 people. And the few times I’ve hosted a “meet and greet”, the confession among us all is that we don’t know one another and really don’t know how to be neighbors to one another. There’s a desire, albeit often very small, but there’s a bigger problem of ignorance and incompetency in knowing how to live in community with other people. Someone has to take the lead and work to overcome the massive inertia to build relationships and forge meaningful community.

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The Series:

Other Supplementary Articles:

I hope this series has been helpful to you. I know it has been challenging and fruitful for me. I hope to continue to write more in the future on this important topic. After all that could be said, the simple fact is that Jesus is Lord. Those who confess Him as Lord are called to live under his reign and rule, bringing that kingdom come through life on mission by the power of His Spirit. It is impossible to have Jesus as Lord and not have His Great Commission in your life. May God help us take greater ownership of the call to make disciples of Jesus because His glory motivates us our hearts and His grace transforms our lives.

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The Series:

Christianity Today calls it “the craziest statistic you’ll read about North America missions.” What is it? One in five (20%) non-Christians say they do not know a single Christian. Nearly 13,500,000 people in North America do not know a single Christian, much less have a relationship with them. Even more startling, if you remove the number of non-Christians who once professed to be Christians, the percentage increases to 60%!

If we are going to reach our world for Christ, we have to embrace the Great Commission with a comprehensive vision to see strangers become missionaries. As I argued in my original article, churches can give the appearance that they are experiencing growth when in actuality they are merely adding already churched members through transfer growth, representing a very small percentage of people in most places. We can no longer tolerate the naive assumption that non-Christians will be attracted to our gatherings or that they will become religious consumers of our spiritual goods and services. They want community, not consumerism; authenticity, not activities. The greatest apologetic for those far from God is showing and telling them a better story–stories of lives changed by Jesus and compelled to love others as Christ as loved them.

Picking up from part 1 of fleshing it out, I want to add some additional practical ideas to encourage follow through.

6.  Acknowledge the Present Reality

We need an honest and realistic starting point. It hit me hard in the gut to realize that I was busy doing “the Lord’s work” while failing to know, much less lead, any “strangers” in my city to Jesus. It is easy for us to look at people and see the color of their skin, how they dress, what car they drive, etc. without acknowledging that they have souls that will never die.

  • The present reality is a spiritual reality: the massive majority of people in my world are rebels and traitors, not sons and daughters of God.
  • The present reality is a missional reality: the massive majority of people far from God do not seek God nor is there fear of God in their eyes (Rom. 3:10-18).
  • The present reality is relational reality: the massive majority of people in my world do not know a single Christian. They are strangers to God and strangers to Christians.
  • The present reality is an evangelical reality: what strangers know about God is very likely to be misguided or ill-informed and their understanding of the gospel message darkened.

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In yesterday’s post, I talked about leveraging the limitations of your relationship capacity. According to Robin Dunbar, there is a maximum amount of sustainable relationships one can have at any given point in their life. Generally, that number is 150 relationships (100 on the low end, and 230 on the high end). According to common sense, we know the actual number of meaningful relationships is much lower than that number.

In fact, I did an unscientific Twitter poll asking my followers specifically that question. Interestingly enough, the highest number of meaningful relationships (and the most consistent answer) offered was 10-12. The second most common answer was 3-4. Isn’t it interesting that the man who perhaps had infinite capacity of having meaningful relationships chose only 12? And even among the 12, He apparently invested more of His time with just 3?

And yet, those relationships resulted in a multiplication of relationships that has turned the world upside down.

So I want to go back to the whole neighborhood outreach strategy of seeing strangers become missionaries. How can we invest our lives in others so that we can meaningfully participate in the Great Commission by making disciples where we live, work, and hang out?

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The day before I left for Haiti, I hastily posted my “from strangers to missionaries” article. Had I known it would be read so much, I would have taken longer than 30 minutes to write it! Oh well. Since then, I have received a lot of feedback from folks–some asking questions and others wondering what it would look like in their context. This post is dedicated to think through practical application and fleshing it out in practice.

1.  Leverage the Limits of Our Relationships

Have you ever heard of Dunbar’s Number? According to Robin Dunbar, there is a maximum number of relationships a person can have due to cognitive limitations and social group sizes. According to Dunbar, the average person can have a maximum of 150 meaningful relationships with a broader range of 100-230 relationships. The larger the number, the more restrictive or superficial the relationships become.

I would venture to say that most of us don’t think very strategically about the limitations of our relationships. Of course we have our immediate relations to our family and extended family. Beyond that we have our friends and church family. Once you factor in the “given’s”, the number of available meaningful relationships is relatively small. That means we need to be careful in how we invest our lives cognitively and missionally for the sake of the gospel.

Knowing these limitations, why not come up with a plan on how to leverage your relational margin for the sake of gospel advance? How many relationships could be acquaintances? Neighbors? Friends? You can’t change the world with 500 relationships, but you can change a neighborhood with 10. I fear the problem with most of us that we have failed to consider these limitations and leverage our relational margin at all for gospel causes. To correct that, we need to begin with examining our relationships and make efforts to demonstrate personal hospitality, receptivity, and availability for God to use us in the lives of others.

2.  Assess Busyness and Make Missional Margin

A key factor with many of us is that our lives are too complex and too busy. We simply don’t have time. Does life have to look like a rat race or exhausting treadmill? I don’t think so. Five years ago I wrote about being too busy not to evangelize, and I followed up with some ways to create missional margin in your life. Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is just showing up. We need to be present, and present with a purpose to live with others, love them, and lean into the kingdom under the leadership of the Spirit to magnify Jesus.

3.  Create a Practical Way of Measuring Movement

In the sphere of 150 possible relationships, I hope that there would be people who are neighbors, acquaintances, friends, family, and missionaries. In every relationship, I hope to see movement toward knowing and becoming like Jesus. All of my “relationship investments” should be stewarded for pointing people to Jesus, to beholding Jesus, and to becoming like Jesus.

One of the most practical ways I try to chart movement is through my missional moleskine. This is my city travelogue in which I journal my way into the lives of others, asking God to use me through rhythms of life in ordinary ways to impact ordinary people with the amazingly good news of Jesus Christ. It could be a prayer, a gospel conversation, learning their story, or simply being present and letting them know I want to be a part of their life (and doing so not in a hurry or looking at my cell phone!). Whatever you use, it is important to measure movement in the same way you journal prayer requests and how God answers them. Looking back, you will be filled with gratitude that God uses little things, little moments, and “little people” to accomplish His work.

4. Remember Your Identity in Christ and Union with Christ

This may not sound practical, but it is probably most practical of all. You see, we know who we are when we are in a church gathering. We are worshippers of Jesus. But our identity as a worshipper, disciple, servant, and missionary does not end when we are not in a church gathering! The reality, however, is that we have an evangelical norm where our identities in Christ are nonexistent in the normal course of life so that we go about our daily living forgetting who we are. When I’m in a cross-cultural context like I was last week (Haiti), I am reminded constantly that I am a missionary and a servant. It’s obvious. But why isn’t that so obvious in my hometown with my own people? Could it be that I’ve adopted a way of living that recognizes Jesus in emergencies or mountaintops but forgets him in the daily grind? Isn’t that where I need Him most and need to be reminded of who I am because of what He did for me?

Let’s face it. The world is an intimidating domain of darkness. It lies in the power of the evil one. We are faced with temptations from within and trials from without. The easiest thing to do would be to find a “safe” place and hunker down until Jesus returns. The unfortunate reality, however, is Jesus does not present that as an option for His people. We are a city on a hill whose light cannot be hidden. We are His ambassadors with the message of reconciliation. Instead of fearing the world’s influence on us, we should carry on in faith, constantly reminded of the Father’s providence for us, the Son’s purchase of us, and the Spirit’s power in us every step of the way. The Lord is my light and my salvation! Whom shall I fear?

5.  Be Prepared to Be Disappointed and Heartbroken in the Mission

Jesus knew what it was like to be on mission and experience heartache, disappointment, and betrayal. Paul knew what it was like to make it his ambition to preach the gospel where Christ is not named only to end his life confessing that everyone there had turned away from him. Jesus finished His mission. Paul kept the faith and fought the good fight. We cannot think that investing our lives in others for the sake of the gospel will come without pain, hurt, and heartache. It’s going to happen, but we cannot shut our hearts and shut down the work. Persevering in the mission comes when we understand how much and how deeply we have been loved by God. Only the gospel can fuel you with motivation to pick up the pieces of a broken heart to love lost, broken, rebellious sinners the way God loved you. In your kindness, God works to bring them to repentance.

In my next post, I will offer some more thoughts on fleshing it out and answering specific questions that I’ve received. If you have questions or struggles, please share. We are all learning together. I need to live this out more than anyone else. May God help us to put feet to these aspirations and use us for His glory!

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Over the past month, many people have heard about my “Jericho Road Moment.” That story is part of a bigger story this year where I’m praying and pursuing God’s kingdom work in my neighborhood and city with renewed initiative and intentionality. Over the past couple months, I’ve been working to gain greater clarity on how to make that happen.

Jesus commissioned His disciples to go into the world and make disciples. I believe, first and foremost, Jesus is speaking of cross-cultural engagement of unreached people groups. The thrust has an expansive, horizontal dimension no doubt. But, I also believe that the making of disciples has a depth dimension as well. Even in “reached” areas of our cities, there are many unreached and unengaged people. Let’s be honest: What percentage of our city is unengaged with the gospel? What percentage of people have any proximity to the kingdom of Christ?

A Helpful Diagnostic to Consider

In my city, we have 165,000 people. The best research I could find is that less than 10,000 belong to any church. That means 155,000+ people need the gospel of Jesus Christ. We dwell in the same city, but for all intents and purposes, they are strangers to me and every other Christian and church. When we are not on mission, the way a church “grows” is by shuffling some of the 10,000 when things don’t work out (transfer growth). It may give the appearance that we are reaching our city with the gospel when in reality we are simply receiving Christians who are either new to the area, or done with their previous church. We are skimming the surface with no missional depth to genuinely engage the city, evangelize the lost, and establish new disciples in the faith.

Here’s a helpful diagnostic to consider. How many non-Christians do you know on a first-name basis? How many of them would consider you a friend? What percentage of your relationship investments is with those who do not know Jesus Christ? How accessible are you to those in your world who do not know God? If the members of our church cannot, off the top of their heads, list 3-5 unbelievers they know, then we have missional atrophy. If the overwhelming percentage of relationship investments of church members are with other Christians, then it has become ingrown. If there are not pathways for pursuing those far from God in our lives, then we have put the Great Commission on the shelf to collect dust.

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