Saturday, May 07, 2016

Why progressive Christians can't evangelize | The Limits of accompaniment | Every nation or bust?

There's a church mission center in Rogers, Arkansas with over 120 mission personnel in service around the world, and more in training. The church itself has about 8,000 members.

By my math, that's one missionary per 66 members.

When I was there for a meeting last week, one family was on their way out for service at an undisclosed island in southeast Asia, and another family was preparing to head for Namibia later this summer.

Here's their brief mission philosophy. Through connection, transformation and multiplication, we desire to be people who are making disciples who live by God's grace and for His glory at home and across the world.

In the meantime, my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a 3.8 million member organization, has 219 global mission personnel, 61 of whom are Young Adult in Global Mission Personnel. Our denomination has an incredible staff of missionaries serving worldwide.

By my math, that's one missionary per 17,531 members.

The ratio between members and missionaries in that church compared to my denomination is stark, and revealing.

But, before we analyze this more, let me mention.

The ELCA has adopted accompaniment as our mission model.

Here's a brief articulation of accompaniment. We understand accompaniment as walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality. The basis for this accompaniment, or what the New Testament calls koinonia, is found in the God-human relationship in which God accompanies us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

When I talk to fellow Christians about missions or evangelism, I encounter varying levels of sophistication around the why of mission, and varying levels of commitment to the whether of mission. Very, very few Christians are focused on the how and the who--and the what, though much contemplated in sermons, is largely assumed rather than articulated.

Here's what I mean. Many Christians who believe mission is a good thing may not deeply reflect on why they think it is a good thing to share the gospel in the first place. Do we share it because we want more people like us, so we can feel more safe? Do we share it because we think people are going to hell if they don't hear it? If we think people are "saved" whether they hear the gospel or not, then why share it at all?

Furthermore, given the extent to which Christian mission has been co-opted by or is even actively complicit in colonizing forces of oppression and forced "civilization," we must consider the whether. I remember sitting in a class of theology students at a Lutheran college where every single student believed that any kind of mission or evangelism is inherently colonial and abusive.

Even if the average Christian wouldn't go that far, the average Christian still does act as if that were true. Our fear of colonialism is performed daily in our tepid to non-existent faith-sharing.

This is the part that frustrates and embarrasses me. Perhaps the majority of Christians do not share their faith with others in an active, missionary manner because they worry about forcing their faith on somebody else.

Many Christians also do not share faith or engage in mission because they feel ill-equipped on the how of evangelism, they don't know who they hope to reach with the gospel, and they may lack sufficient knowledge to speak the what, the content of the faith that would be shared.

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, my wife and I served as missionaries in Košice, Slovakia. We conducted our mission work primarily along the accompaniment model encouraged by the ELCA. We were there accompanying the Church of the Augsburg Confession in Slovakia as it rebuilt its parochial school system after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Our work was not primarily to bring the gospel to people who had never heard it, but strengthen and accompany a church already engaged in proclamation of the gospel in that place.

However, the accompaniment model only goes so far. The ELCA does not send missionaries to places where no church is not already established. On the one level, this may be good, because it avoids colonialism altogether. On the other hand, if the gospel our church confesses is worth sharing, is it also a kind of reverse colonialism to not share it, or leave such faith sharing to other kinds of missionaries from other traditions?

Another way of saying this: You can't accompany a community you are unwilling to meet, frozen as you are by fear of your own motivations. You can't be open to the transformation that interdependence brings if you do not enter into the space of the truly and completely Other.

This is why our denomination has much to learn from evangelical missionaries like my neighbor church. Although we might disagree on the how and the what, I think I find myself in solidarity with them on the whether. 

Should we send missionaries to new communities? Yes. Absolutely. May their tribe increase!

In the end, I think we might adopt a fundamental rule for mission: We should engage in mission and evangelism, because we believe we have encountered a life-giving message worth sharing. But aware of the potential colonialism inherent in sharing ourselves with others, we are called to approach all mission as reciprocal, making ourselves vulnerable and open in our mission to "reverse" mission with those who we encounter. We bring something, and those we encounter bring something to us in return.

Often it is the evangelist who needs to be evangelized. Always it is the missionary who needs someone to save them. The world over it is the colonizers who need decolonialization.

But this is not an argument against energetic mission in the name of Christ. Rather, it is its raison d'être.


If you want a place to start, I encourage reading Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation on the new evangelization.


  1. OK, I'm going to be as honest as possible here. I am a Christian. I was raised as "nothing," came to faith, and received baptism. I am ordained. I am heavily involved in ecumenism and inter-religious relations. Christianity is the path for me. I can't ever imagine abandoning the faith which grounds my life. MY life isn't perfect. But I firmly base my life on the death and resurrection of Jesus (or try to), and believe that through my baptism into Christ's death, I will share in a resurrection like his. HOWEVER, I am not convinced that everyone needs to be a Christian. If I encounter someone who has no faith to ground them, and is seeking, I will certainly speak of my faith to them, and invite them to "come and see" where Jesus lives----in the midst of the Church, as well as the world. I think it is a good way of life. But if I meet, say, a Buddhist, who has found meaning, and a spiritual path, and is exhibiting "good fruits," why should I attempt to "evangelize" her? If I meet a Christian who has fallen away from the practice of the faith, and has not found meaning elsewhere, of course I will speak to that person also of Christ. Being a follower of Jesus is a good way to live. I have no doubt that there are other good ways to live. I have a friend who is an atheist and finds moments of awe in the world around her. She strives to live a moral, loving life. Whom am I to say that she is not an "anonymous Christian?" (A phrase of Karl Rahner's, which is highly criticized in certain circles, but since I know the intent, I have no problem with it.) Don't get me wrong, I struggle with the whole "evangelism" issue, but as long as there are scads of baptized unbelievers running around this country, I do not know why we should go to other cultures and attempt to change them. We have enough work to do here at home.

  2. Mission is a challenging concept in today's diverse world. As Christians encounter other traditions, we need to learn what to do with some of our exclusivistic assumptions. As I write in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTER faith Matters?: "Inherent in these challenges is the Christological question: in light of our religious 

diversity who and what is Jesus? If we do not reject the truth claims of other traditions, 

we may have some problems with our own. These dilemmas are not solely academic 

exercises. They are very practical issues that need to be addressed, for example, in our 

practices of evangelism and mission. As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The 

problem of Christian mission is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of 

Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”