– by Walt Mueller
2002, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
Some would argue that James J. Farrell was out of his mind. He piloted a B-26 bomber on numerous missions over Europe during World War II. Like all other bomber pilots of his day, Farrell named his plane. He chose Flea Bait, after the nickname his brother gave to the Farrell family dog. But after piloting Flea Bait through several hair-raising missions, he decided to change the name. While his squadron’s other planes usually returned to the air base without harm, Farrell’s Flea Bait always seemed to come back looking like Swiss cheese. Enemy anti-aircraft flak guns ripped so many holes in the plane’s body that Farrell renamed his plane Flak Bait.
This past summer, I stood alongside dozens of other Washington, D.C. tourists to stare in amazement at the front portion of Flak Bait’s fuselage on display at the National Air and SpaceMuseum. The plane had successfully returned from 207 operational missions, more than any other aircraft during World War II. On one mission alone, over 700 metal splinters from enemy flak fire pierced the plane’s metal. More than 1,000 visible patches cover the holes flak made in Flak Bait. I pondered what must have gone through the minds of Farrell and his crew each time they took off on a mission. (Yes, they were somewhat crazy, but they were also single-mindedly committed to what they did.) The flak never became an excuse to stay on the ground or go AWOL. Instead, handling flak became a part of their job. In order to serve his country and complete his mission, he knew he would have to take some flak.
There’s a sense in which living the committed Christian life is full of similar “job hazards.” As members of the Kingdom of God we’re called to proclaim God’s message of redemption in a sinful and fallen world known as the kingdom of darkness. As we live out God’s rule and reign in this world it’s inevitable that enemy flak will fly all around us. It’s to be expected. But there’s another kind of unexpected flak you and I may encounter that catches us off-guard, is usually painful and is pretty hard to swallow. It’s the occasional flak that comes from those who are on our side.
I’m involved in a rather unique ministry — I’m a full-time student of youth culture. I work hard to “listen” to the world so I can, in turn, help those called to minister to the emerging generations better understand how to effectively communicate God’s unchanging Word to a rapidly changing world. Because I spend so much time digesting what kids read, listen to and watch, some of my brothers and sisters in Christ think I’ve gone off the spiritual edge. At times, they question my theology and believe I’ve “sold out” to worldliness. From what I’m hearing in the trenches, I know I’m not the only one who’s had this experience. If your God-given passion to reach the lost takes you out of the church and into their world — and it should — be prepared to meet the same type of opposition.
My good friend Dick Staub believes that to take Jesus into our world requires fully engaging both our faith and the world. I agree. It’s certainly the way Jesus did ministry. Dick says that if you truly follow Jesus in this regard, “you will likely end up seeming too Christian for many of your pagan friends, and too pagan for many of your Christian friends. When you truly follow Jesus, you’ll spend considerable time and energy in the world like he did, and as a result, many of your religious friends will think you’re too irreligious. On the other hand, many of your irreligious friends will find it odd that you are so focused on the spiritual. Thus, you end up seeming both too Christian and too pagan.” (from Dick Staub’s book Too Christian – Too Pagan). Consequently, the flak flies from both sides. Of course, the flak from the other side is expected. But the flak that comes from your own side is usually pretty hard to handle.
Here are some ways I’ve learned to respond to the flak we’ve gotten at CPYU — from our own side — for hanging out with “tax collectors and sinners.” Hopefully, you’ll be encouraged and challenged by these responses as you consider how to best respond when you face the same.
Be patient, understanding and full of grace. Those who object are typically people who don’t believe they could or should share your call. Some may wonder if your call to fly into enemy territory is even from God. Some hold to a theology that leads them to separate themselves from anything perceived to be “worldly.” When you listen to their objections it becomes clear that they wonder how their faith would survive if they were in your shoes. They might also wonder if your faith is surviving. We need to be grace-full in our response. Maybe spending time with non-Christians would take them too close to a difficult place they left that they’re not too ready to revisit. Because I was once critical of people like me, I realize our objecting friends are still in process. Be patient with them.
Always have an answer. Separatists typically build arguments based on a few Bible verses that can be pretty convincing. But when viewed and studied within the full scope and context of God’s written Word, it’s clear that Biblical precedent is on the side of those who engage the culture for the sake of the advance of God’s Kingdom. The history of redemption points to the incarnation of Jesus Christ the Messiah, the God-man who came to seek and save those who were lost (Luke 19:10). The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19, 20), the ministry of Jesus and the example of Paul combine with the whole of Scripture to call us to do the same by engaging in incarnational ministry. For those who wonder “Is it right to engage the culture?” challenge them to read the Gospels and Acts with that very question in mind.
Ask them for their answer. Many “flak firers” have never taken the time to think through “why” they oppose a ministry of cultural engagement. Perhaps their convictions are rooted in their upbringing, church tradition or general fear of culture — that combine in a reason no better than “That’s the way I’ve always done it.” By asking for their reason, you can lead them to see any shaky theological foundations that exist in their conclusions, lead them to reconsider their conclusions by studying the Scriptures, or you can better understand how they’ve reasoned themselves into thinking the way they do.
Listen to their objections and search your soul. This is absolutely necessary and vitally important! I’ve learned that God often uses the objections of others as a catalyst for timely self-examination. Consequently, I’m not so fast to jump back with a quick knee-jerk defense. Seek first to understand the perspective and concerns of those who object. They might raise some necessary issues that may set you straight in areas where your desire to connect with the lost may have caused you to compromise theology or conduct. Remember the fact that among brothers and sisters in Christ “iron sharpens iron.” If you’ve gone too far over the edge, their “flak” can serve to rescue you from going any further.
Realize you’re a missionary. Before leaving this earth in bodily form, Jesus left his followers then and now with a clear command to “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19, 20). Missionaries know that relationships built on the foundation of cultural understanding are a prerequisite for effective evangelism and discipleship. Those relationships are established and strengthened only as we spend time intimately involved in the daily lives of those we hope to reach. Knowing them and their culture (their music, film, books, etc.) allows us to know their needs, particularly the “spiritual touch points” where the message of God’s Good News can bring light into the spiritual darkness of their lives. This is the very approach the apostle Paul took when he engaged the pagan culture of Athens (Acts 17). He walked through their streets, rubbed elbows with them, read their poetry and looked at their idols. Then he opened his mouth to share God’s Good News.
Talk about the promise of divine protection. Disengagement from the world is often motivated by fear of losing one’s spiritual edge or even their faith. While the Scriptures are clear that we need to be careful, living in fear is evidence of faulty theology and distrust in God’s protection. Yes, we shouldn’t take advantage of God’s protection by wandering foolishly into harm’s way. But neither should we use the threat of harm as an excuse to disengage from spiritual battle. Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd who protects his sheep from the one who comes to steal, kill and destroy (John 10). When he prayed for his disciples before his arrest, Jesus made it clear that his prayer was not that his disciples be taken out of the world, but that the Father would protect them while they are in the world — the very place where he has sent them (John 17).
Take them with you. Many people I know who are scared of non-Christians (whether it be the people themselves or their expressions of themselves through books, music, film, etc.) — especially those who are pretty far out on the edge — have never spent significant time getting to know people outside the church. One of the greatest motivators for a stale and inward looking church is to get the people out into the mission field of the world where they can rub elbows with “real” people. Meghan was a pretty scary sight when I first laid eyes on her. She was a Goth in the fullest sense of the word. Here hair was black, her eyes were circled in black makeup, her face was whited-out, she work black clothes, and she was covered by tattoos. She had been practicing Wicca. She was also one of the sweetest kids I ever met. She told me, “The people like me who look the hardest on the outside are the softest and neediest on the inside.” They want to get to know us.
Tell them your stories. The Gospels are loaded with stories about the amazing things that happened when Jesus spent time with pagans. The woman at the well, Nicodemus and Zacchaeus the tax collector were all changed because Jesus spent time with them. Our fellow believers need to know the Holy Spirit still moves powerfully in the lives of unbelievers who have been sought out and loved by followers of Christ. Those stories offer compelling evidence of the need to engage the unbelieving world.
Pray for them. Separatist attitudes are usually rooted in years of suspect theology and practice. They usually aren’t undone overnight. Pray for your Christian friends, that God would allow them to see a lost and hurting world through His eyes. Pray that they would be moved from firing flak at the brethren, to feeling God’s grief for those who don’t know Him.
What goes through your mind as you “take off” on the mission of serving as salt and light — “flying” redemptively — through the enemy’s territory? Are you single-mindedly committed to that call? Are you using flak — from friend or foe — as an excuse to stay on the ground or go AWOL? Do you see flak as an unavoidable part of your calling? I ask myself these questions all the time as part of the process of self-examination. And each time I come back to the realization that in order to serve God and obediently fulfill his mission and call on my life, I’m going to be flak bait.
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