Who Are The Appropriate Targets of Christian Missions/Evangelism?


Found a nice article today that I had not read before. It was written around 1994. It is on the Missio Nexus website, titled “World Evangelization by AD2000: Will We Make It?” (https://missionexus.org/world-evangelization-by-a-d-2000-will-we-make-it/). The article was written by “Anonymous.” I don’t know who wrote it, actually, but the address for queries suggests that he or she is linked to the International Mission Board of the SBC. Anyway, the article pointed out some things that were problematic in the early 90s with the AD2000 movement. One of these was the artificial due dates. Things have to happen because the time is short— maybe only 24 months. Maybe only 3 or 4 years. There was no real basis for this seemingly. The timeframe appeared to be chosen simply because it sounded inspirational and motivational. I don’t consider that to be particularly excusable and does speak poorly of those who were doing this.

A second concern was that the goals were not measurable. There was no consistent standard or reliable measure for verifying metrics. What makes a group unreached? Standards varied. How does one determine that it is now reached? It is hard to hit a goal (or even be certain of missing a goal) if one can’t agree on what the standards are, and if there is no good way to measure whether these standards have been met.

The third concern was what to do regarding Roman Catholics, Eastern Church groups, and Mainline Christian groups. Many of the mission groups considered such Christians as unreached. The article referenced above pointed out many of the problems associated with this. I would also add that one has to deal with the theological questions associated with excluding at least two-thirds of all Christians from being… Christian. If a person worships the same God and calls upon the same Savior in faith… what beliefs or values would they have that would cancel such faith?

This is not a trivial question. I serve as a missionary in a country that is 90% Christian… around 5% Evangelical Christian. Does this mean 90% of the people in the country I serve are redeemed people bound for paradise? Very doubtful. Does this mean that only 5% are redeemed and the rest are lost? Very doubtful as well.

There are costs to struggling with this issue. As “Anonymous” wrote back in 1994, if much of the resources of a mission agency are being utilized to lead Catholics and Orthodox “to Christ,” it is possible one is not doing any such thing but merely “sheep-stealing.” But if the person was in need of salvation, the question is whether to pressure them to leave their church and join an Evangelical church or remain within their present church. Resources that could be spent on bringing people to Christ who have never heard the good news would be limited because of the internecine conflict.

My view as a missionary in a predominantly Catholic country is not that popular. Usually the argument is that Catholics believe that they need to work for their salvation as well as receive grace through sacraments, so they can’t be saved. Others point out the excesses of iconography and pagan beliefs associated with folk Catholicism are indicators that they are not redeemed. I do believe that these are indeed concerns. However, I think there are better ways to address these than all-out war.

Believe it or not, my focus here is not on trying to convince Protestants and Catholics to get along. It would be nice if they did, but this post is not going to change anything. Rather, my hope is that people will see the cost of this warfare. The biggest one is that it demeans the gospel message. However, when I teach Interreligious Dialogue with other Religions, I find several things keep recurring with seminarians.

#1. The seminarians have little experience talking with people of other non-Christian faiths. In fact, when I tell my students to have a rich conversation with a non-Christian, I commonly have to say over and over and over that Catholics don’t count (as qualifying as a non-Christian for the assignment). Finally, I end up saying something like, “I need you to have a conversation with a person from a faith that has NO roots in Historic Christianity.” Alternatively, I may broaden things to “I need you to have a conversation with a person that is from a non-Nicene faith group.” If I don’t I will invariable get people who will give me a dialogue with a Catholic friend. This just perpetuates the communication barrier with non-Christians.

#2. The seminarians, when they seek to share their faith with another, will almost always drift into a presentation that is designed to get nominal Christians or non-Evangelical Christians to say the Sinner’s Prayer. Regardless of whether you think this is good or bad, the point I am making is that they will then do this even with those from completely non-Christian backgrounds. Therefore, their presentation presupposes a Christian or Jewish conception of God, and a Christian understanding of who Jesus is and the authority of the Bible. Little time or effort is made to know what other groups think, or what their hopes and fears are. They prefer the “low-hanging fruit” of reaching someone who already agrees with everything the seminarian already believes, getting them to express their faith in a slightly different way.

Does this mean I believe that Evangelicals should never reach out to non-Evangelical Christian groups. No. But I would suggest the following:

A. Don’t approach members of these groups antagonistically, or focusing on drawing them away from their church. We were working with a Catholic nun, when a member of her religious order came up to visit to make sure that we were not trying to pull her out of the her order and her church. At the time I thought that was ridiculous. I was convinced of her personal faith in Christ so why would I seek to undermine that trying to cast doubt on her community. Later, however, I discovered that the pastor at our church was actively trying to get her leave her community and join his church.

B. Speak openly and honestly (and gently) about the similarities and difference of our faith traditions. Take BOTH the similarities and the differences seriously.

C. Have some humility. There is a lot of things messed up in every branch of the Christian “tree.” Each group needs a bit of healthy soul-searching before pointing out the mote in the eye of another. Relatedly, don’t be sure you know exactly who is redeemed and who is not. God knows… because God knows the heart and God knows whose is His own. We don’t. Therefore, we should not act like we do.

D. Since we don’t know who is saved (both Christians who are quite similar to us and those quite different) rather than focusing on salvation… focus on bringing people closer to Christ. (Hiebert would describe this as related to a ‘center set’ approach.) In other words, for those who are self-described Christians, focus on discipleship and let the Holy Spirit convict based on His true understanding, rather than our convicting based on our own prejudices and presumptions.

You might be asking, if I am in a country that is 90% Christian (by self-identification) and I believe that Evangelicals really should not focus on evangelizing self-identified Christians (at least not as a primary activity), why am I here? Shouldn’t I be somewhere else? Possibly. However, my ministry is training Christians in Asia for reaching out to non-Christians in Asia. Doing so in Asia actually makes a lot of sense, I believe. Perhaps I could do it in a Christian-minority country, but at this point in time, those who live in such countries have been able to come to where I live for training. Additionally, the country I live in is one that is transitioning into a missionary sending country. As such, I think it is a good place to be.

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