If I Try to Get You to Leave Your Church to Go to My Church, Is That Missions?


I was reading “Encountering the History of Missions” by John Mark Terry and Robert Gallagher. In the Reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, they try to make the (what I consider to be) controversial argument that they were quite missional. Their argument, however, seems to boil down to, “See how much they tried to get people to leave other churches and join their own?”

In most cases, this church piracy involved trying to get people to leave the Roman Catholic church to join their own group. This is a big question for me since I serve in a missions role in the Philippines. Philippines is over 80% Roman Catholic, and over 90% Christian. Many Evangelical missionaries in the Philippines focus very intentionally on getting Catholics to “be born again.” However, since the Bible is pretty clear that only God knows the heart and we are only competent to examine our own selves not others, in practice it tends to devolve into getting people to switch churches.

Is that valid? As a ministry, I suppose it is. While I don’t really have a high opinion of those who try to harvest out of other people’s gardens, I don’t necessarily believe that all churches are equal and their membership roles sacrosanct. However, I feel like church fathers would not see see this as missions. If the Hellenistic house church groups in house church network in Antioch tried to draw away members from the Hebraic or Latin house church groups, I don’t think Paul or Barnabas would be seeing it as missions. In the case of Terry and Gallagher, they were at least consistent. In a later chapter on Jesuit missions, they saw Jesuit attempts to get Protestants to rejoin the Catholic church as a mission strategy. Again, however, I am not sure I would.

Arguments for seeking Roman Catholics to become Evangelicals as mission work seem to be either because of (1) “nominality” of RC believers, (2) dubious theological views of the Catholic church, or (3) rejecting them altogether as Christian.

The weakest of these is #3. I have seen websites describe Philippines as about 10% Christian. To come up with that number, one has to assume that (a) 0% of Catholics are Christian, and (b) 100% of everyone who calls themselves Christian who is not Catholic is indeed a Christian. I have, however, met many very devout Catholics who (as far as I can judge) devout in their behavior, and true in their faith. I have also met a large share of Evangelical Christians who are immoral and seemingly faithless. For me argument #3 is insulting at best to non-Evangelicals, and at worst, playing God.

In the middle is #2. is in the middle for me. Yes, there are a lot of problems (in my view) with Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. Some of the more egregious ones were fixed in Vatican II, but others still very much remain. One may make the argument then that these views are so bad that it is better for Christians to grow in their faith outside of the Catholic church. I think that argument can be made. My problem is that almost always, ministry work to Roman Catholics starts with trying to get them to say “The Sinner’s Prayer.” The first part reinforces the assumption that all Catholics are non-Christian, and supports the most dubious assumption that the Sinner’s Prayer is the same as salvation experience. Further, there seems to be the assumption that evanglizing fails if one is not able to get the person to leave the Catholic congregation for one’s own.

I have experienced a version of this second issue. I have had Evangelical Christians (or more commonly Pentecostals) attempt to share the gospel with me. Once, I tell them that I share a common faith with them, they immediately continue into the second part of their presentation which is why I need to leave my faith tradition and my church and join their faith tradition and their church. I find this rather insulting and built on a very shaky understanding of Christ’s church. I feel like we can do better in training our memberships to recognize and appreciated the Unity and Diversity of the Body of Christ.

The best argument is #1. There is a LOT of nominality in the Roman Catholic church. This tends to happen when culture and faith tend to mix. With the prominence of the RC in Philippines, it is not surprising that their are many many cultural Catholics who have little to know discernible faith. However, the same could be said in many other settings. I am a Southern Baptist missionary serving in Asia. However, in the Southern United States, there are many places where community culture is very Southern Baptist. Not surprisingly, there can be an awful lot of nominality in the memberships of SB churches. BUT… then I ask myself a question— If a Christian denomination began targeting nominal SB members for evangelism and as part of that process intentionally seek to pull them out of the SB churches and into their own, would I consider that to be Missions?

The answer is NO. So although I still struggle with coming up with a satisfying definition of “Christian Mission,” I think that a good definition would NOT include intentional targeting of respondents from other Christian denominations with the intention of drawing them into one’s own denomination. <That being said, I don’t want to judge people in this matter. I teach missions classes overseas, and oversee a counseling center. Neither of these things hit the bullseye on traditional Christian missions either.>

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