Too “Christian” for Mission?


CLARK FOBES     |     MAY 1, 2018     |     10 MIN READ


“Don’t get sucked into the Christian bubble.” That was the warning people gave me when I left San Francisco to attend college in the heavily affluent, “Christian” suburb of Irvine. Having grown up in city hostile to Christianity, I didn’t really understand their cautioning. But to be honest, a Christian bubble sounded kind of nice for a change.

In college, people told me the opposite message – “Spend as much time as you can in church/fellowship” and “Take advantage of these four years to get as much spiritual training as possible.” So I chalked up the former warning to bad information and began submerging myself in the Orange County Christian community.

Between Sunday service, Monday Leadership Meetings, Tuesday Prayer Nights, Wednesday Small Groups, Thursday Fellowship, and Friday Bible Study, I was at church or with church people every day. Those of us heavily involved in our fellowships and churches wore it like a badge of honor, and for the majority of my four years in college, this was my Christian experience and my understanding of discipleship.

The Missing Link of Mission

As beneficial as that time was to my personal growth and understanding of the Gospel, there was one huge piece of my discipleship that was missing – mission and evangelism to non-Christians. I rarely interacted with non-believers because I was always with Christians.

I tried to justify my situation, pointing out that I lived with non-Christians for one year, although to be honest I rarely saw them. I evangelized “randomly” on Wednesdays at 2pm, through awkward two-minute conversations with unsuspecting students who were sitting in front of the library waiting for their next class.

The problem is we never really figure out how to reintegrate back into the real world.

Despite growing up in a non-Christian environment for my whole adolescent life, I was now conditioned to never talk or interact with people outside of my Christian bubble. It wasn’t until I was in seminary, reading through the Gospels and the book of Acts, that I finally came to grips with the horrific truth – my version of Christianity in terms of the Great Commission looked nothing like what Jesus had intended and what was displayed through the early church on the pages of Scripture.

I suspect many Christians have had experiences similar to mine. Out of good intention, we are told to surround ourselves with Christian community – let’s face it, it’s a bubble – for our own growth. Then, once we’re mature enough, we’re told, we’ll be sent back out into the world to be a light for God’s kingdom.

The problem with that is we never really figure out how to reintegrate back into the real world. We spend four years learning how to interact with other Christians, speak a Christian language foreign to the world, and live in a Christian subculture foreign to non-believers. Then we walk into the secular workplace, shocked and appalled at our surroundings, paralyzed by our complete social inability to interact with people unlike us, and retreat back to our safe bubble of Christendom. Quite the opposite of what Jesus intended when he sent us out “as the Father has sent me” (John 20:21).

Missional Engagement?

Imagine a missionary who doesn’t live among the people he is trying to reach, spends all his time speaking his own native tongue, and only highlights the importance of his own culture. It doesn’t make any sense, and yet, that’s exactly how we “prepare” for going back into the world after college. Instead of being a sending base to launch Christians out into the world, the church becomes an isolated nation-state, scared of the outside world.

So for those of us who have been living their lives safe in the Christian bubble, how can we begin to engage with the world around us?

First, live among the people who need to be reached around you

Don’t spend all your time engulfed in Christian community. The Christian bubble may seem good for you now – and it can be at times – but it can hinder you in the long run.

Build relationships with non-Christians in your classrooms and workplaces. Join clubs that allow you to share common interests with non-believers. Make a weekly appointment to hangout over a meal or an intense night of board games.

Most importantly, remember that a truly Gospel-centered faith is not one lived out solely through church events and programs, but also through the “everyday stuff of life”[1] (Eph. 5:15-17).[2] The way to truly live on mission for the gospel is to increase your understanding of and obedience to the gospel as you work, drive, eat, play, and spend time with family and friends. Perhaps the less busy we are with church activity, the more we’ll see the gospel truly lived out in our lives.

Second, learn the language and culture of the people around you

Like any missionary who goes to a new people group, we must be willing to lay down our language, culture, comforts – our very rights! – for the sake of the gospel to reach the lost (1 Cor. 9:1-7,12,15,19).[3] This means getting out of our cultural comfort zone and going to those culturally different from us.

It also means investing time to lovingly learn about our non-Christian friends and the world they live in. This does not mean we must take on their culture and language, but it does mean we should seek to understand them enough that we can dialogue over the gospel with them in terms and values they can relate to. Otherwise, our Christianese and Christian norms will only communicate that the gospel is a foreign culture they must convert into, or worse, simply a set of practices, language, and behaviors one must put on in order to identify with Christ.

Third, instead of random evangelism, engage in relational evangelism

We are often trained to think of evangelism as just a 30-second presentation that we just need to get through But as much as succinct, abundant, and even random evangelism is needed, it isn’t always effective and we might even turn some people off.

Instead, think about the impact of your whole life as a living testimony – a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1-2). If you are living with people, learning their language and culture, and showing them your life, you can display to them how Jesus is not an addendum to your comfortable American life, but the center of your entire existence.

Few of us will be proficient and gifted in speaking the gospel into every brief interaction we have with strangers – and many of us are terrified at such an extrovert-biased mode of evangelism. All of us, however, are able to have conversations with those we are already in relationship with. This does not mean we retreat into “friendship evangelism” – build a friendship first before we even mention Jesus.[4] It does mean God has given us people in our midst to relate to, and open our hearts to (2 Cor. 6:11), in order that they might see and share the beauty of Jesus with us.

Not every Christian is a missionary, but every Christian is called to be on mission, making disciples as we go to the lost, sent out in the very same way Jesus was – living amongst them, relating linguistically and culturally to them, and showing the gospel by sharing our lives. This type of missional engagement requires getting out of the comforts of our Christian bubbles and laying down our rights, becoming “a servant to all, that [we] might win more of them” (1 Cor. 9:19).

Is it possible we’ve become too Christian for our mission? Let’s pursue Christlikeness with all fervor that we might be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16); let’s lovingly embrace Christian community and love one another that “all people will know that [we] are [Jesus’] disciples” (John 13:35); but let’s also be a community that sends Christians out into the world to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), thereby fulfilling the mission mandate of our Lord.

[1] This is a phrase Jeff Vanderstelt frequently uses when discussing faith, discipleship, and mission all-in-one. See his book with the same subtitle, Saturate: Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015.

[2] While only one example of many, in Ephesians 5, Paul urges the believers to “Look carefully then how you walk… making the best use of the time… [and] understand what the will of the Lord is.” He goes on through the rest of chs.5-6 to show how the gospel affects marriage, family relationships, and work.

[3] Interestingly, this verse that is used to talk of contextualizing our lives to reach the lost (“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” 1 Cor. 9:19) is often used contrary to what Paul is saying. We typically use this verse to justify our becoming more like the world and living out our freedom and rights in Christ – drinking, partying, smoking – rather than how Paul uses it, to lay down his rights and give up freedoms in order to reach the world.

[4] This term is often accompanied by the cute, well-meaning, but horribly unbiblical phrase, “We must earn the right to share the gospel with them,” often meaning we must earn their friendship before we can speak of Jesus. Unfortunately, many have used this as an excuse to simply build relationships, but never truly loving their “friend” by sharing the greatest news we could give them.

Clark is the Youth Pastor at Sunset Church in San Francisco, CA, and has been pastoring in the Asian-American context since 2009. He is also part of the steering committee for Rooted, a ministry dedicated to advancing grace-driven youth ministry by equipping youth leaders. Clark received his M.Div. from Talbot School of Theology, and is currently pursuing his Doctor of Missiology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife have one daughter, Kara.