Mission: What If We Are Just Fixing Fish?
I want you to imagine for a moment. Imagine that a group of Christian missionaries from Israel came to Dunn, NC. And they looked around and they saw this great building and they observed our worship service, and joined us for a potluck meal. And then they told us they needed to sit down with us to talk.
We sit down together and they tell us they really want to help us grow. They have time-tested strategies to evangelize and invigorate faith communities around the world. And they lay out a plan for us.
They tell us we must stop wasting so much money on this building. The gospel is about people, not buildings, they say. They tell us we have to sell our stained glass windows and the organ and piano and sound equipment. We even need to seek out land. Christ had no land, no building, no fancy musical instruments and his message lives on 2000 years later. So we need to get back to our roots if we are to be successful.
They tell us we need to get back to meeting in homes as was the custom in the early church we read about in the book of Acts. We need to sing together, share meals together, pray together, and share your money and possessions with anyone who has a need. That’s what it says in Acts and that is what built the church. It’s been good enough for these missionaries in Israel since the days of Jesus. So, it is what we should be doing as well.
Now how do you feel about that? What are you thinking? Take a few seconds and really consider how you would feel if this happened.
You’d probably show those missionaries the door right? Invite them to go right back to where they came from. You might tell them there are some folks back in Israel that could really use them and they should get right back there and take their ideas to their own people.
Now I wonder why you and I might feel that way. I wonder why we’d be so upset, turned off ticked off even.
Now listen to this story…
It wasn’t long before some Jews showed up from Judea insisting that everyone be circumcised: “If you’re not circumcised in the Mosaic fashion, [they said,] “you can’t be saved.” Paul and Barnabas were up on their feet at once in fierce protest. The church decided to resolve the matter by sending Paul, Barnabas, and a few others to put it before the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem.
When they got to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were graciously received by the whole church, including the apostles and leaders. They reported on their recent journey and how God had used them to open things up to the outsiders.
Some Pharisees stood up to say their piece. They had become believers, but continued to hold to the hard party line of the Pharisees. “You have to circumcise the pagan converts,” they said. “You must make them keep the Law of Moses.”
The apostles and leaders called a special meeting to consider the matter. The arguments went on and on, back and forth, getting more and more heated. Then Peter took the floor: “Friends, you well know that from early on God made it quite plain that he wanted the pagans to hear the Message of this good news and embrace it—and not in any secondhand or roundabout way, but firsthand, straight from my mouth. And God, who can’t be fooled by any pretense on our part but always knows a person’s thoughts, gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as he gave him to us. He treated the outsiders exactly as he treated us, beginning at the very center of who they were and working from that center outward, cleaning up their lives as they trusted and believed him.
“So why are you now trying to out-do God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and crushed us, too? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those from beyond our nation? So what are we arguing about?”
There was dead silence. No one said a word. With the room quiet, Barnabas and Paul reported matter-of-factly on the miracles and wonders God had done among the other nations through their ministry. The silence deepened; you could hear a pin drop.
James broke the silence. “Friends, listen. Simeon has told us the story of how God at the very outset made sure that racial outsiders were included. This is in perfect agreement with the words of the prophets…
“God said it and now he’s doing it. It’s no afterthought; he’s always known he would do this.
“So here is my decision: We’re not going to unnecessarily burden non-Jewish people who turn to the Master. We’ll write them a letter and [encourage] them…
Everyone agreed: apostles, leaders, all the people. (selected verses from Act 15:1-22)
I want to easily sum this story up:
- Jewish Christians were struggling over what to do with new gentile converts
- Many felt they should do exactly what the Jews did, for example, be circumcise as a sign of the covenant
- And this created problems because it was not the practice of gentiles to be circumcised
- There were arguments…back and forth…until some disciples stepped in to basically say that God has already been at work in the gentiles. There is no need for them to conform to Jewish customs simply because Jews said they should.
- In other words, some folks believed they knew what was best and right for others. But Peter stood up For the Gentiles and told the Jewish Christians that they should stop acting as if they knew best, they should stop acting like Parents to the Gentiles, they should stop trying to take the place of God.
There is a word to describe the actions of folks when they believe they know what is best for others: Paternalism. It basically means acting as a Father or parent to someone that is not your child.
And in this story in Acts, we see the early church struggling with paternalism. Some of the Jews believing they knew what was best for Gentiles. It was good enough for me, so it should be good enough for them. That was their attitude. God made us do it. So they have to do it too.
And they were wrong.
And we struggle in our world with paternalistic attitudes. And it happens far too often in mission work.
Mission work is paternalistic when some folks think they know best for other folks.
Mission work is pAternalistic when the haves believe they have all the answers for the have-nots.
Mission work is paternalistic when folks have to jump through hoops to receive help and assistance.
Mission work is paternalistic when we try to fix people believing if they just did things our way they would be just fine.
And I want leave you with a thought about why paternalism doesn’t work. Why it’s focused on the wrong thing. Why, at the end of the day, paternalism is really about trying to take God’s place just like some of the Jewish Christians in the story from Acts.
Take a look at the image above. Isn’t that a beautiful lake. Wouldn’t you love to go there?
Let’s imagine taking a trip there right now to enjoy that beautiful scene for a few days. You walk out to this lake and step onto the pier. You take a deep breath and gaze out in awe.
And then you look down and notice that in spite of the amazing blue water, there is a dead fish floating right at the end of the pier.
What do you think to yourself? What do you wonder?
Maybe you wonder why this fish died…? What happened to him? Did he eat something bad? Make a poor food choice and ended up on someone’s hook? Maybe he got too close to some predators in the lake?
And you think to yourself, if that fish were only as smart as all the other fish that are alive he probably wouldn’t have died. He should have taken some lessons, played better attention to his fish parents…
But then you happen to notice another fish floating belly up dead…and another and another. And you look around a realize that there are dead fish all over the place floating belly up in the water…you just didn’t see it at first with all the beautiful scenery.
With hundreds, no thousands of dead fish floating in this lake, what do you start thinking now?
Maybe something is wrong with the lake! Maybe thee is something toxic in the water killing all the fish. Maybe there is an epidemic, a disease in the lake.
You see, too often when we do mission work, we treat each person we see like that one dead fish. We wonder what they did wrong. We think about how they would be fine if they just did x, y or z. And we try to help them make better choices, and learn certain skills that we believe will solace the problem.
And the truth is there are hundreds of folks floating in this lake we call Dunn or Harnett county or North Carolina. And yet our mission work almost never looks at the lake….the water quality, the environment that is hurting and killing people.
Too often our mission work tries to fix fish and send them back in a toxic lake. And when we fail to pay attention to the lake, you can be pretty sure we are being paternalistic. You can be pretty sure we have taken the place of God in people’s lives, telling them what is best for their lives when the truth is we know very little about their life.
Now the answer is not to stop everything we are doing and go all out trying to address the lake. There are fish that need our time and attention. We need to help and serve them just as Christ would…and is! But we need to take time to consider the lake. To ask questions about our mission work….are we just fixing fix or are we also trying to make the lake and healthy and safe place for these particular fish?
Notice I didn’t say all the fish in the lake were dead. Not at all. Some fish in that lake were doing just fine. In fact, some were thriving. It was just some particular fish that were struggling by the hundreds and thousands. So the lake isn’t affecting everyone’s badly. Just some.
Our job as followers of Christ in a world where thee are haves and have-nots is to ensure that everyone on God’s fish are cared for and have a place to live in which they – even when they are different than us – can thrive.