A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mission/Evangelism Is a False Distinction

At the end of October, I and several other UM pastors are going to be leading a work mission trip to Haiti. What we will be doing we do not yet know, but there will be plenty of work for years to come. Whether we are clearing away debris or building something, we will be doing what we can to assist people in great need. I am looking forward to the trip. I have been to Haiti, though it has been some years, but I love mission. It is is my blood, and frankly it should be in the blood of every follower of Jesus.

One of the interesting discussions that gets going in Christian circles from time to time is whether or not work mission should also be seen as a time for evangelism. After all, it is reasoned, if we are going to help people in need primarily in the hope that they will "come to Jesus" are we not viewing people as means to an end instead of ends in and of themselves? Shouldn't mission work teams be limited simply to doing the job that needs to be done and save evangelism for another day?

I think the mission/evangelism distinction is quite unfortunate, and quite unbiblical.

For Christians, mission and evangelism should be intrinsically related to one another. I am going to Haiti in October as an expression of service to Jesus Christ. Whether I am digging a well or sharing my faith in conversation with someone at the work site, both are motivated by my belief that Jesus is the Savior and Lord of all the world. When I am digging a well I am embodying my faith in Jesus and when I am speaking of Jesus, I am presenting the reason for why I am digging the well-- to assist whomever I can in need because Jesus, who is Lord of the World, would do no less. The mission/evangelism distinction assumes that mission is something other than evangelism and that evangelism is something other than mission. Mission is only doing and evangelism is only speaking. Can anyone who reads the Bible seriously believe this? Why can't mission also be speaking and evangelism also be doing?

Jesus himself, who saw people as ends, nevertheless called people to follow him. The general scholarly consensus is that Jesus' basic message is summarized in Mark 1:15, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." Jesus did not separate his deeds of mercy from his preaching. Indeed, his entire ministry was an expression of the arrival of the kingdom. When we separate mission from evangelism we unwittingly undermine the New Testament notion that deeds of mercy are not signs of the kingdom come. In addition we lose sight of the fact that the resurrection of Jesus is not a provincial event meant to effect only a limited number of persons. Resurrection is a sign of God's desire to transform the world.

I think what some Christians rightly object to and why they find the mission/evangelism distinction helpful is that some Christian groups can make "evangelism" a requirement to receive "mission." I know of some churches who have soup kitchens, but make listening to the "come to Jesus" speech a requirement to get a hot meal. Other Christians will stop helping certain persons if they have not converted within a certain period of time. Such an approach to mission and evangelism, does view people as a means to an end. While every Christian should hope that all persons accept Christ as Lord and Savior (and I do mean that), that should never be a precondition for the ministry of the church. We must minister in the name of Jesus, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. If Christians are to see people with the eyes of Jesus, they must have compassion on them in their need and act accordingly regardless of the faith commitment or the lack thereof of the recipients. At the same time, the kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and every kingdom citizen should want others to become kingdom citizens too.

Finally, the last command Jesus gave to his followers before his Ascension was to make disciples of all nations. It is not always easy to know how to follow Jesus' instructions, but we must follow them. Whether or not we should take Jesus seriously should not be up for debate. Jesus said make disciples; we must make disciples. I sometimes wonder if "mainline" Christians emphasize the mission/evangelism distinction as a way of avoiding calling people to conversion, and if evangelical Christians emphasize the same distinction as a way of not having to do manual labor along with having to come up with the expense involved. Of course, I am speaking in over-generalized fashion, but sometimes overgeneralization helps advance the discussion.

Mission must be more than glorified relief work. Evangelism must be more than simply presenting information.

It is high time we discard the mission/evangelism distinction in the church. It distorts both mission and evangelism.


Country Parson said...

One of the most impressive demonstration of mission evangelism I have witnessed took place each month in an Episcopal Church a few blocks north of the one I served in NYC. This church operated an active food pantry to help the residents of the neighborhood. Each month a group of Mennonites from Kansas would come for a few days to help out. That was long trip for them. Certainly there was enough local volunteer help that they were not needed for labor. I'm sure there were plenty of opportunities for their service in Kansas as well. And the food pantry was in a church that also had it's own strong evangelical presence in the community and did not need another denomination coming in to "make Christians." But, in their quiet way these Mennonites became witnesses to the love of Christ that transcends space and denomination. Their presence became a symbol of authentic care for those who came for food. They symbolized that God's love in Christ Jesus that was preached in that church was something more than the Sunday ritual of a brick building on the corner of an NYC street.

PamBG said...

Some random thoughts.

I have attended a frighteningly large number of church-related meetings where people did not think to pray about the business of the meeting either before or after.

As Christian people, I would have thought prayer and fellowship would be a natural part of everything we do, including a work mission.

I also think that people-in-general (i.e. people whose faith or status with God we don't have any information on) often appreciate a person who will speak to them, ask them their prayer concerns and then pray with them. Many people don't know how to put their prayers into words or don't think that this is a way that they can pray. This is a great ministry.

As Christians, we should not omit to pray and to give account of the hope we have in Christ.

But....I often get the impression that when people complain about "not evangelizing" they mean "We are not making it of first priority to try to win converts." I don't really see how a person could go to Haiti now (or Zimbabwe or the The Sudan or where-ever) and make winning converts their first priority. James put it best in his Epistle when he asked how we can say to someone who is hungry "Be well" and then not give them something to eat.

May you and the people you are with be blessed, be a blessing and go with God.