Missionary – Imperialist – Absolutist – Exclusionist — Proselytizer
When I was telling our neighbor that we would be away for a few weeks, he asked me who I was going off to proselytize.
[One thesaurus offers these synonyms for proselytize: convert, win over, spread the gospel to, evangelize to, make converts of, bring someone into the fold, bring someone to God. I have since been inspired to write a tongue-in-cheek tract specifically for my neighbor Chris with the title Proselytzing Chris.]
Like proselytize, the term missionary has taken on such pejorative connotations that even CrossWorld now makes an effort to call its missionaries workers. In some limited access countries where there is a fear of being discovered, the workers refer to each other as m’s(pron. >emz<). It seems the M-word makes folks recoil, and I am not here to defend its use. The concept, however, whatever we call it– that Jesus came and that we go—must be well-intentioned, since He commanded it.
Donna and I were driving through the western Maryland country side when we passed “Good Intentions Lane.” We spent some time discussing what might be the origin of the road’s name . . . and where it might be expected to lead! Like a lot of good things, the missionary endeavor has often been loaded with other stuff—advocacy of a European sense of commerce, politics, manners, and cultural whatnot– just to point a finger in the obvious direction. And it is true that well-rooted in our depravity is the urge for coercion, manipulation, subtlety, and replication of self (–see the OT). Even if we pretend not to carry over the ambitions of our national group into another’s culture, we definitely carry ourselves (not that I think all that stuff can be completely separated).
So how does the pure, unadulterated gospel come to you and me, or get to them and theirs through us? Today’s missiologists (workers who study how this happens) talk about translation and assimilation. They say that the gospel uniquely adapts to cultures. So even though the workers, the missionary carriers of the gospel, might (surely) carry in all their own baggage, the message is so powerful that the hearers turn through faith in Jesus to the one true God He represents, explains, and mediates on behalf of.
It is amazing that the treasure in earthen vessels gets out. It is amazing that the treasure in earthen vessels got in, in the first place.
The fact that we church people– we body-of-Christ body parts, we mission-commanded corporate representatives, we once-upon-a-time imperialists and some-time proselytizers, we lovers-of-self and producers of outreach programs and strategy— have a few flaws and a bit of rebellious spirit left in us, does not stifle that outpouring of the Spirit: “The arm of the Lord is not too short to save . . . He will come like a pent-up flood” (Isa 59).
On the other hand, there is this bad-felt reputation of M’s as proselytizers, which I think extends even into the minds of the followers of Jesus, and which I think comes from a feeling I will call Don’t-tell-us-what-to-do. Whatever the source— a strong sense of the right of personal self-determinism, American individual freedom as a value, pluralism as politic, philosophical relativism, or just embarrassment for the Crusades, white dominance, and/or the stuff previously mentioned— the Light of the world is pure and unadulterated, and not ashamed to call you, or the other guy, brother. It is this incorruption of Jesus, in which we are called to go, and can boldly live.
My previous sentence has a wonderful finality in it, and ultimately takes the taint off the proselytizers.
Yet if we could go with an added measure of understanding about ourselves, and an added measure of understanding about those to whom we go—
- if we went understanding our own spiritual-cultural baggage and understanding their spiritual similarity and cultural difference—
- if we went skilled with a recognition of what communicates more than words and what is heard from our behaviors and persons that is loud beyond our words–
- if we went as humans who did not assume so much about our humanity and studied His image in theirs—
- and more if we went as learners and seekers of the Spirit of Jesus ahead of us, and sought to learn Him with others, more as preaching-interpreters of good news, less as demagogues from a distant planet, more as co-learners of spiritual insights and co-heirs of planetary gifts—
- and if we pursued others by putting ourselves right up against their pain and sorrow and dying so we felt it ever so much, not retaining our rights to normality-on-our-own terms and safe distance—then maybe some of that rightly-labeled, ugly-bravado proselytizing would fade.
Isn’t this the way in all relationships? Among true friends, within your marriage, among your family, with your ageing mom, in your workplace, alongside your neighbor, within your church . . . and to the multicultural ends of the earth.