Christian missionary the Rev. John Williams, center, is stepping from a rowboat, surrounded by other Europeans, about to go ashore the palm-fringed Tanna Island. A crowd of Vanuatuans greets him in 1839. Image by George Baxter/Creative Commons

American Christians need to reinvent their theology and practice of missions

(RNS) — On a stormy August day in 1806, five students at Williams College in Massachusetts were gathered in a field for a prayer meeting when a thunderstorm suddenly broke over them. The students ran to the nearest shelter — a haystack — where, as they continued praying, they were burdened to take the gospel to the nations, particularly South Asia.

Known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting, the gathering is considered by church historians as the awakening of the North American missions movement. It grew to enlist a vast number of churches and organizations that every year commission individuals and whole families to go overseas and share the good news. Many go on trips of a few weeks or months. Others relocate to their host countries and spend decades — even the rest of their lives — overseas. They learn the language, adopt local customs and integrate into the community with the purpose of winning souls for Jesus. 

For 200 years, this has been the model of North American missions. It has succeeded in some cultural settings, while in others it has struggled and even backfired, to the detriment of the gospel. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has ground the missions machine to a near halt.

A missionary preaches to a large group of schoolchildren during a mission trip to Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of Project Hope

As the church figures out the way forward, this may be a moment to rethink the traditional sending framework. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the inequalities millions of individuals experience every day. Unfortunately, many American Christians, focused on the spiritual aspect of the gospel, shy away from these social issues. They perceive racial reconciliation, immigration reform and economic inequalities as part of a social justice agenda associated with progressive politics.

Influenced by the particularly Western idea of separation of church and state, some American Christians misinterpret Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John that “my kingdom is not of this world.” They believe it to mean that our physical, social or political realities are not our concern as Christians. They forget Jesus called out the religious leaders of his day who allied themselves with political systems for their own gain. They fail to see that the allusion to the kingdom itself had powerful political overtones.

Jesus’ kingdom challenged the existing power structures and called for a new ethic of how we are to treat each other — the last will be first, the first will be last; whoever wants to become great must become a servant. Jesus was redefining the game humans have played for millennia to get ahead at the expense of others. His followers don’t play by the world’s rules, but that doesn’t mean they are not in the game.

So what does this mean for our understanding of missions?

If we are truly announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, then we will challenge injustice and oppression in all their forms, spiritually and physically. We are joining God’s work to bring heaven to Earth. God isn’t simply saving souls and shipping them off to an extraterrestrial paradise — he is restoring the whole human being and creation.

A female on a mission trip, right, plays with a child in Sri Lanka. Photo by Alexandr Podvalny/Unsplash/Creative Commons

In India, where I live, thousands of girls and women are trapped in an ancient system of ritualized prostitution. They are sexually exploited in their youth so that by the time they are in their 30s or 40s, they are living in poverty, have poor health because they have contracted sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, and they are caring for children whose fathers will never acknowledge them. Will these women believe we are sincerely interested in their souls if we don’t do anything to free them from the hell they are living in?

Offering hope for an afterlife without addressing the reality on the ground will not suffice. The gospel is concerned with the present life and the life to come.

One thing the North American church has gotten right is that the fundamental purpose of our lives is to glorify God. We must do this both in speech and action, proclaiming a gospel that brings hope for this present life and the one to come.

(The Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, which advocates for and delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized in South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as president of the All India Christian Council. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)