Last month I wrote about a powerful process that congregations can use to mobilize their members for mission right where they are. It was the “Awaken & Activate” process, next hosted by the Presbyterian Church of the Master from June 14-16. Now I want to spotlight another resource that is transforming the way Christians in America are bringing the life of Jesus to their communities and places of work. Let me do so by focusing on another friend and colleague, Jim Milley, whose story inspires me to no end.
Jim describes himself as “a forced missionary to the USA.” As a mission co-worker in Ethiopia, he helped Christians start new ministries, and saw the church grow in that nation from two million to four million members. Then, his second daughter was born in Ethiopia with Down Syndrome. She caught pneumonia during the rainy season and needed to be medically evacuated to Nairobi on an intensive care jet. Within a few weeks, his wife and he sold everything they owned (for the second time) and returned to the USA.
Back in America, he dreamed of an organization that would equip leaders do what mission co-workers are trained to do all over the world. He thought, “We do this all the time when we send missionaries overseas.” But when he spoke with leaders of mission organizations in the U.S., they were hesitant to turn their attention toward home, even though 200 million Americans are not connected to any church. As one organizational leader said, “We can’t do everything.”
Then it dawned on him, there are a higher percentage of active followers of Jesus in Ethiopia (where he served as a missionary) than in America; it’s time to provide leaders in the USA with the same tools that missionaries get when they travel overseas.
That’s when he started dreaming, writing, and planning about Bridges in his home office. As a missionary he had many tools with which to do ministry. He had not only his local congregation, but also those of the PC(USA). And beyond that, multiple other organizations were part of the effort from Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship and The Outreach Foundation, to Wycliffe Bible Translators and international NGO’s.
Every organization was a tool that God brought to the table. Coming back to the USA, he saw just as urgent a situation, but with fewer tools, and he wondered how God might use him to create an organization that would bridge the gap between all these available resources and Christians in America who want to connect with their neighbors but are having trouble doing so.
That’s how Bridges got started—one missionary with a vision to equip new missionaries for America. But how?
Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t that hard. As Jim writes, “Missionaries have the skills we need. They have learned cross-cultural practices from hundreds of years of trial and error. They know what to do and what not to do. We just need to learn from them!”
That’s what Bridges offers to every Christian who wants to know what it takes to make disciples in a culture that feels increasingly distant from the institutional church but still remains very interested in Jesus.
What Bridges teaches and nurtures are the same practices that Christ taught his disciples as he sent them into the world. Allow me to share a basic outline of them, and then please consider how you, or someone you know, might connect with Bridges US to learn more:
GO—Missionaries go to where the people are. They don’t invite people to come. Rather, they go.
MOVE IN—Missionaries move in. They don’t just stay a while. They become part of the community. Church members and pastors visit, which is a good thing. But missionaries move in and develop lasting relationships with people who don’t know Jesus.
JOIN—Missionaries say “yes” to invitations to join groups of mostly unchurched people (soccer teams, book clubs, community organizations). Missionaries do the work of joining their group, not the other way around.
LEARN—Missionaries know that the first person who changes is the missionary. Learning comes before teaching. Missionaries learn the group’s language, their history, and how they see the world. And, missionaries adopt as much of their habits and customs as possible. Churches want to teach first and invite new people to learn. A missionary goes to learn.
HELP—Missionaries offer help. Churches ask for help (Will you join the choir? Will you help teach junior high students? Can you give of your time and talents?) A missionary arranges his or her schedule so that people can depend on them to be around and asks, “Is there anything I can do?”
BEFRIEND—Missionaries are good friends because they need friends! They are ready to say “yes” to invitations to get together. Missionaries treasure the stories of others, share their own stories, and open themselves up authentically and vulnerably. People learn that they can say what they feel without fear around missionaries.
DISCIPLE—When friends ask questions, missionaries are ready to discuss God, Jesus, and the deeper questions of life. Churches focus more on large worship groups. Missionaries focus more on one-on-one discipleship.
FORM GROUPS—As more people want to follow Jesus, missionaries help form groups so that learning, joy, support, and encouragement may increase as relationships are multiplied. Gatherings can take place anywhere (health clubs, cafes, homes, work places, bars, parks).
EMPOWER LEADERS—Missionaries care that people in newly formed communities decide for themselves what happens, what they are going to do, and how they are going to invest their time and talents. To the extent they are invited, missionaries encourage and equip leaders to lead groups into greater joy, vitality, and positive impact on others.
SEND—Once a new group is formed and begins to grow, it moves outward by sending some of their own members to engage with other people and groups. The followers become new missionaries.
To learn more about Bridges US.