of math, millennials, and the mission field

My sister Hannah is a mathematician.

She’s the only mathematician I’ve ever actually known personally. You just don’t meet that many people who go to grad school to learn things like real analysis and partial differential equations with the hope of spending their careers doing research in the area of “pure math” - and I’m still not fully sure what that means. Even less often do you hear someone exclaim, while writing proofs in what appears to be another language, “It’s so beautiful!” (Hannah has said things like this on multiple occasions.)

Far more common? “I hate math.” “I can’t calculate the tip - I’m terrible at math.” “Why don’t we stop teaching kids all this stupid algebra and just teach them useful things, like how to do their taxes?”

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Every now and then, you meet a one-in-a-million, like my sister. Someone who has found the beauty and the wonder that others may never appreciate, due to their deeply-held baggage of fear, confusion, inadequacy, or ignorance. Sadly, they grew up learning mathematics as a series of formulas to memorize and complicated steps to master, but no one ever taught them the logic of it; they never got the opportunity to problem-solve, to think critically, to ask why.

So they struggled through twelfth grade, or maybe as far as the undergraduate requisites, and then said goodbye to math forever. After all, we’ve got calculators for that.

The same thing has happened to the Christian church in America.

People are mystified at the numbers of the millennial generation who are leaving their Christian faith upbringing behind. Many of them, like me, were raised in Sunday school and AWANA, active within their youth groups, and never missed church. They went on mission trips and had records of great spiritual transformation. They loved Jesus. And now they’re gone.

And it’s for the same reason so many people hate the beautiful thing that is mathematics: because all they ever learned was the rules. They learned how to look, act, and speak like a Christian. They learned the Ten Commandments and all the other Biblical rules that their church considered important. They learned verses and stories and could sing the books of the Bible in order; they learned the formula for a salvation prayer (“Jesus, please come into my heart”), and how to categorize people into the ones doing it “right” and the ones doing it “wrong.” They learned how they should vote and how they should dress and who they should associate with. They learned the black and the white.

But no one ever taught them the logic of it.

No one gave them the chance to problem-solve, to think critically, or to ask why.

No one led them past the rules and into the relationship that their hearts were crying out for - beyond the formula and into the beauty of Christ and His love.

And no one gave them permission to consider that maybe it’s not all black-and-white, after all. Maybe some things are gray.

Why wouldn’t they bolt as soon as someone offered them the freedom to think outside the box, to be loved for who they are rather than what they do, or to ask the questions they’ve been dying to ask all their lives?

It’s not a mystery. They know the Bible, they know the Gospel, and they know exactly why they’re no longer part of the Christian church. If we’re listening, so do we.

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And I hope we’re listening, because to steal my sister’s words - it’s so beautiful. What God has done, the story He is writing, is so beautiful. The love He has offered is so beautiful. The desire of His heart to draw His created image-bearers back into relationship with Him, and to give them an inheritance as His own sons and daughters, is simply breathtaking. What a heartbreak to imagine that many will reject that truth because of deeply-held baggage like fear, confusion, inadequacy, and ignorance.

But we can’t share this beauty and freedom with others until it’s a reality for ourselves. Just as we’re the product of an education system that taught math as something you’re either “good at” or “bad at,” so many of us are the product of a church culture that has diminished Christianity into a list of rights and wrongs. Hannah has put in years of hard work and persistence to find and celebrate the beauty in mathematics; likewise, this issue can’t be solved by making churches more “relevant” - it has to be solved the hard way, which is by example.

The mission field of America, in many ways, starts inside of us. Even if we have never walked away from what we know to be true, most of us still have some callouses from clinging to the rules at the expense of the relationship. And our friends and peers who have abandoned their practice of faith very likely know just as much Bible and Christianese as we do - so they know how to spot a fake. They won’t be fooled by a religious show.

Only when we ourselves rediscover the beauty of the Savior, the genuine delight of walking in relationship with Him, and the blessing of counter-cultural unity with the His body can we possibly hope to recapture the young hearts in this nation. And truthfully? Some of the hearts that most need recapturing are our own.

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Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

how to bear fruit (that will remain)

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another."
John 15:1-17

Though it's now one of my most-beloved (and by far the most annotated) pages in my Bible, I once had a very negative understanding of this passage - one shrouded by the dark shadows of guilt and fear. I looked at the requirement of fruitbearing as a threat (what would happen if I didn't bear enough fruit?), not a loving call to walk with Jesus and allow Him to work through me.

Key to this unfortunate misinterpretation was one central issue, which I have slowly come to recognize as I've studied God's Word for the last half-decade: I had a very limited definition of what “fruit” really was.

In my mind, fruit could only mean evangelism. New converts. Revivals and altar calls, Billy Graham style. Or handing out tracts, or having "intentional" (that word always sounds a bit salesy to me) conversations with the cashier, or preaching on the streetcorners, like John the Baptist. Maybe I was alone in this assumption, but even now, rarely do I hear the word "fruit" mentioned in Christian circles without implications toward sharing the Gospel with unbelievers. It was foreign to me for the first 18 years of my life that it could mean anything else.

But when I actually read the Bible I found (as so often happens) that I was wrong. While evangelism obviously does make up an important part of the reproductive process of Christianity, I can't find any indication that Jesus looks for a mere tally of “decisions for Christ” in our harvest. This is about more than fruit—it is about fruit that will remain.

My fear is that we tend to teach and model evangelism disproportionately, under-representing the vital role of discipleship, so that what we end up with is a whole lot of fragile baby grapes that are never given the tools they need to grow bigger and stronger, and won't even be able to withstand the first frost.

The Apostle Paul, by far one of Christianity's most prolific fruit-bearers, seemed well aware of this hazard, and outlined his goal for the harvest like this:

We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.
Colossians 1:28-29

Notice that he does begin with the declaration of Jesus Christ, which we would call “evangelism.” We proclaim Him. But the sentence does not end there, because evangelism is not the end goal. A “man complete in Christ” is the goal! Evangelism is only the beginning, and to reach the point of completion, every man must be admonished (warned of the depths of his sin nature so that he can choose life in the righteousness of Christ) and taught with all wisdom (retrained in the Word of God so that he can navigate a hostile world without wavering). This can't be done in a weekend retreat or a single conversation; it takes, without exception, a lifetime.

The great commission is more than evangelism - it's discipleship too. And that's the only way for Christians to bear fruit that will remain!

This process, empowered by God, of taking a baby Christian and tending him to maturity in the faith is the whole purpose of Paul’s life of ministry. It is also the exact pattern of biblical discipleship as shown and spoken by Jesus. Compare Paul’s statement with one of the most familiar discipleship passages in Scripture, the Great Commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
Matthew 28:19-20

Go therefore. This short phrase is one of the most-quoted snippets of Scripture in promoting missions, but mistakenly so. Go therefore is not the imperative of the sentence, but rather the qualifier—it answers the “When?” and “Where?” of this command, but does not embody the command itself. This technicality gets a bit muddied in the text’s translation from Greek to English, and might be more accurately phrased “In your going . . .” or “As you go your way . . .”

And make disciples of all the nations. Here, finally, the actual command—and in fact, the only active verb in the sentence—surfaces: make disciples. We have been given the where and when (“in our going”); now is the “What?” and the “Who?” This is where we find the actual task at hand, the fruit-bearing ministry to which we have all been called as followers of Jesus and branches of the Vine. It's not a call to get more people through the door or to get more hands raised during the altar call; it's a call to invest wholeheartedly in the health and growth of another person's soul as a bondslave of Christ.

Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. A two-part answer is given to the remaining question, “How?”, and this is part one - the part that might fall under our common term of evangelism in the church today. This is the “We proclaim Him” that Paul declared in Colossians, and it is more than mere street preaching. It is the demand upon every sinful heart to make a choice. Christianity, by its very nature, is is an ultimatum: a choice between Jesus and the world, between eternal life and spiritual death, between the truth and the lie. Those who choose Christ are asked to publicly reject all else and root themselves henceforth in the Truth of the Triune God.

Teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. And here is part two, the essence of discipleship itself: the building up, the training and edifying and carving and shaping of a rough-cut soul into a beautiful temple of the Holy Spirit. The tending and watering and nourishing of a delicate sprout into a healthy fruit-bearing plant. The presenting of “every man complete in Christ” that Paul labored for. And this is by far the piece that demands the most time, energy, perseverance, and focus - which might be why it's the piece that sometimes gets overlooked, or passed off as a job limited to those in full-time ministry, when in reality it's part of the commissioning of us all.

Contrary to what I thought for many years of my life, it takes the whole Great Commission to create a picture of the fruit that the Church was intended to bear. It is the kind of fruit that will remain steadfast and reproduce in like manner through trial and hardship, through cultural rejection and social isolation and family ridicule, and even through the deceptive waters of prosperity and blessing.

The Great Commission isn't summed up in evangelism. Christian fruit isn't measured in how many people we can persuade to pray a prayer. There is so, so much more to this immense calling than just shouting down the world with the Gospel - it's so much bigger, so much harder, so much more beautiful. We're called to abide in Christ and to feed ourselves from His life-blood (apart from which we can do nothing), to allow God to lovingly trim away the things that dilute our effectiveness, to walk in obedience to Him by sacrificially loving one another, and to proclaim His Name with the intent of patiently cultivating the soil of every softened heart with the incredible story of the Word of God.

All of this is part of bearing fruit.

As any farmer can tell you, there is no way to rush the production process, and the imperative tasks aren't the same in all seasons of the year. Sometimes it's the preparation of the soil, sometimes it's the seeding of the earth, sometimes it's the watering of the crops, sometimes it's the harvest. And other times, the only thing to do is wait and rest and trust that God is still at work even while the ground lies dormant.

And I'll say it again: all of it is part of the fruit-bearing.

We, believers, are farmers. And evangelism is just one tiny piece of the vast, patient process of bearing hardy and prolific fruit; both before and after it come times of waiting and tending and weeding - and never giving up.

I want them to see Jesus in me

I want them to see Jesus in me

when we say "I want them to see Jesus in me," we should mean that we want to be utterly and completely unlike the world - and that we're okay with becoming outcasts and making enemies as a result. It should mean that we quantify our success by our obedience, not by how many friends or converts we make, and that we seek to serve rather than be served.

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