when is evangelism (in)appropriate?

7 September, 2005 at 12:13 pm 3 comments

I received the daily email bulletin from ekklesia. One of the articles on Hurricane Katrina is entitled, "Don't use aid to proselytize, Christians urged". The head of the Christian Aid agency co-ordinating relief efforts criticises Christians using aid to win vulnerable people over to their religious convictions as "morally questionable". I think he's absolutely right! When people are suffering as they are, aid is a wonderfully Christian response. It is the equivalent of not walking by on the other side of the road when other human beings are suffering. It says, without words, "We are moved by compassion! What is happening to you is appalling! We want to help!"

That has its own evangelistic dimension. True compassion of that sort is sacramental. If we believe what we say about compassion mirroring the heart of God, then we must trust that people who encounter love and compassion in action encounter God. That is what is needed in this instant. It is Good News concretely in the face of the bad news that governs their lives.

Of course, Christians do not have the monopoly on compassion! Another article is headed, "Axis of evil offers to come to America's rescue" and details offers of help from the Cuban president, Fidel Castro. That must be pretty galling for the American religious Right! Yet we need reminding that all acts of compassion and love are ultimately Godly, whether coming from people of faith or not. The Kingdom, after all, is bigger than the Church (however much we'd like it to be otherwise) and its values and priorities are shared in many ways by extraordinarily different groups. We need to learn to see these other groups as co-workers for the Kingdom, even when they have nothing to do with it and theoretically oppose it. God's presence is found in strange places, as the hearers of the parable of the Good Samaritan found out!

But why the ban on using aid to proselytise? Because that is neither Christian nor evangelistic! The distinction between "proselytise" and "evangelise" is crucial. To proselytise is to seek to persuade someone to embrace my religious convictions – to think and believe and live in the same way as I do. To evangelise is to tell people the Good News of Jesus Christ and invite them to find the same Life as I have in being a follower. That is not the same thing! The former views the other person as a potential convert – a target, or statistic. More importantly, proselytisation is fundamentally about cloning, so that I see the other as a potential "someone like me". Evangelisation sees them as a fellow human being and assumes some sort of relationship between us that is not based on their potential "convertibility".

We need to recognise how deep the unconscious drive is in us to make a success of the Church. Because we express our faith in this context as we do, Church and discipleship are pretty well interchangeable. The trouble is, we lose sight of the crucial difference – just as many of the Christian missionaries were unable to disentangle discipleship of Jesus Christ from white, western, imperial culture! Until we can disentangle the two for ourselves, we will tend to proselytise rather than evangelise.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be desperately keen for those in dire need to receive not only bread but the Bread of Life! Yet what we should be offering beyond aid alone is our prayers and offers of friendship. We are sacraments of God's grace and love in Jesus Christ, far more eloquently than our words. We need to offer ourselves – not our religious beliefs – because in so doing we are offering Christ. And we need to celebrate the Jesus whom we meet in communist Cubans, as well. Because Jesus is there too.


Entry filed under: evangelism, mission.

a Jesus & Peter dialogue on forgiveness church life is also mission

3 Comments Add your own

  • 2. Wol  |  8 September, 2005 at 2:36 pm

    It all depends on motivation, doesn’t it? Sending Bibles as a gift is a good thing. I hope people read them! Assuring people of God’s love and nearness is a vital ministry. People look for God in times of disaster and need. It is really important to testify to our faith in a God who is with them. The words of the verse of the hymn, “God is love”, are Gospel words: “And when human hearts are breaking/under sorrow’s iron rod/that same sorrow, that same aching/wrings with pain the heart of God”!

  • 3. K8  |  15 September, 2005 at 8:58 am

    Embodiment of gospel is sacramental, yes. It is here there is common ground between christian and non-christian because we are together discerning and occasionally bringing god’s ‘kingdom’ or community as part of mission and are indeed co-workers. In giving aid to be motivated by ‘getting them to convert’ is sin. God sees the heart and it’s there we’ll come a cropper.


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