Posted by: Titus Presler | December 27, 2018

NY Times’s ‘Ethicist’ columnist offers insightful view of evangelism and Christian mission

A remarkably balanced view of evangelism, Christian mission and the relationship between the two was offered by the regular ‘Ethicist’ columnist Kwame Appiah in the Dec. 23 edition of the New York Times Magazine in response to an inquirer concerned about her grandniece’s upcoming evangelistic mission trip to Nepal.  It is unusual to see such a nuanced view of Christian mission in a secular venue.

For those unfamiliar with this NYT feature, ‘The Ethicist’ appears weekly in the Magazine, with the columnist responding to readers’ questions about various ethical dilemmas in their lives.  The columnist changes from time to time, and the current columnist, Kwame Appiah, formerly of Princeton, is now professor of philosophy at New York University.  Here’s the text of the question about evangelism, along with Appiah’s response:

My grandniece posted on Facebook that she is trying to raise money so that she can go on a trip to Nepal with other high-school students from her Christian school to “evangelize the unreached people” of South Asia. My husband and I can easily afford to contribute to her fund-raising effort, but I am opposed to evangelizing. I fully support mission trips when the participants travel to needy communities to provide assistance, but not when the object of the trip is to convert people to Christianity. I believe that we should honor – and work to understand – the religions and spiritual traditions in South Asia, not try to change them. Is there a way to support her without supporting the underlying reason for the trip? Name Withheld

Missionaries will consider almost everyone in Nepal “unreached,” even though most Nepalis have a mobile phone. So your grandniece isn’t arriving to some premodern redoubt. Nor is she going to coerce or bribe or threaten people into changing, or pretending to change, their religion. She’s aiming to explain to them why she thinks Christianity is the true faith. It’ll be up to them to decide whether they agree with her. To assume that they can’t be relied on to do so in the light of their own best judgments is to risk condescension.

Evangelizing Christians played a role in the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, contravening settled traditions in both Britain and Africa; in late-19th-century China, missionaries played a role in ending foot-binding. All that was indeed good news. More recently, in Uganda, a handful of American evangelical ministers evidently helped spur the passage of legislation that sought to drastically increase the penalties for homosexual acts. That was bad news. It’s useless to try to draw up a ledger sheet here of good and evil. The point is that God and the Devil are in the details.

Still, you might want to suggest to your grandniece that if she wants these South Asians to be open to hearing her good news, she should probably be open to hearing theirs, too. That way, she can make an effort to understand the traditions of the place she’s going, which you rightly suggest is a good idea. Whether she should honor those traditions as well depends on what they are – and she won’t be able to decide about that if she doesn’t know anything about them. There are, after all, a great many ways of not being a Christian.

First, some notes about the inquiry:

  • The letter writer expresses a negativity about evangelism that is not only characteristic of religious skeptics but also common today among Christians in ‘mainline’ denominations – Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans. She rightly declares that one should honor and seek to understand other religious traditions, in this case those of south Asia. Yet it is clear that she believes evangelism should be out of bounds, even after seeking to understand other religious convictions and probably even if the evangelism is milder than when ‘when the object of the trip is to convert people to Christianity.’

 

  • The letter writer expresses the equally common – and naïve – view that mission trips   designed to render ‘assistance’ – by which she probably means education, healthcare, poverty alleviation, clean water and so on – are immune from criticism. In fact, missioners often undertake such efforts with neo-colonial assumptions that they know what people in the Two-Thirds World need and that they are uniquely qualified to organize efforts on their behalf.

 

  • The term ‘unreached people’ is common among groups that note, accurately, that there are people groups in the world that have never heard – and therefore have never been reached by – God’s news in Jesus Christ, and so they seek to ensure that all people have a chance to hear the gospel. Sometimes they use the terms ‘unevangelized’ or ‘under-evangelized.’ They support missionaries to evangelize such groups, and often these missionaries are indigenous people from the region of such ‘unreached people.’  One Anglican group in North America that has been at work on this for about 25 years is Anglican Frontier Missions.

Now, about Kwame Appiah’s response:

  • Appiah addresses the letter writer’s probable assumption that evangelism is inherently coercive when he assures her that her grandniece is not traveling in order ‘to coerce or bribe or threaten people into changing, or pretending to change, their religion’ – which is the erroneous and distorted view of evangelism that many people have. Instead, he assures her that her grandniece is ‘aiming to explain to them why she thinks Christianity is the true faith.’ That’s a good corrective.

Here’s a nuance I would add: Evangelism consists in simply bearing witness to what God has done in one’s life through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  In simpler terms, evangelism is telling one’s own story in light of God’s story.  ‘Explaining why she thinks Christianity is the true faith,’ on the other hand, is more the province of apologetics in the context of inter-religious dialogue, and that is beyond the ken of most high school students!

  • The letter writer states that ‘the object of the trip is to convert people to Christianity.’ Maybe, maybe not.  Appiah gently suggests a likely alternative, that the grandniece will be ‘explaining why she thinks Christianity is the true faith.’  I would add that an evangelist or an evangelistic team should never set themselves the task of ‘converting people to Christianity.’  Conversion, if it happens, is not to Christianity as a religion but to a reconciling relationship with the triune God – Creator, Christ and Spirit.  Equally important, conversion, if it happens, is not the work of the evangelist but the work of God.  Evangelism, again, is simply bearing witness, telling the story, and leaving the rest up to God.

 

  • Appiah’s point about condescension is crucially important. Western critics of evangelism and Christian mission in general often base their critique on a view that people in the Majority World – Africa, Asia and Latin America – are naïve, credulous and unable to think for themselves, and that therefore they are the unwitting victims of evangelizers from Europe and North America. Appiah is gentle in calling such attitudes condescending, for they are often racist as well.

 

  • We might add that people in many parts of the world and certainly in south Asia live in lively religious marketplaces where they are used to religious appeals from many different groups, among whom Christians are just one. Moreover, Christian evangelism in south Asia, in particular, is carried out chiefly not by Euro-Americans but by indigenous Indians, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Imagining that evangelism is a program peculiar to western Christians is amnesiac about how the Christian movement has spread over 2,000 years and anachronistic about the dynamics of world Christianity today.

 

  • In noting that ‘evangelizing Christians’ were prominent in important social justice movements, Appiah implicitly corrects the common mistake of trying to separate the evangelistic emphasis of, say, William Wilberforce from his lifelong campaign to end the slavery trade and slavery in the British Empire. No, his justice initiative arose organically out of his Christian faith. Evenhandedly, Appiah also notes the damaging effects of other evangelicals’ recent support for harsh penalties for homosexuality in Uganda.  His comment – ‘It’s useless to try to draw up a ledger sheet here of good and evil’ – is an important corrective to the generally negative assessment of Christian mission’s effects, sometimes even among otherwise competent Christian missiologists.

 

  • Appiah’s final paragraph is an excellent exhortation for evangelists to listen before speaking, to be alert for the good news in other religious paths before sharing one’s own good news of God in Christ. As I wrote in Horizons of Mission:

Incarnational expectancy is a life orientation that can midwife us through the birth canal of interreligious encounter and understanding. . . . God calls us to engage the world expecting to glimpse something of what God is doing and how we can participate.  That is as true of our encounter with other religions as it is of our encounter with anything else.

At the same time, in his closing comment Appiah dismisses the uncritical relativism that assumes all religious paths are equally beneficial: ‘There are, after all, a great many ways of not being a Christian.’

 

Although I assigned his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers in a missiology class, I do not know Appiah.  He is British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher.  That cosmopolitan background may account for his ability to bring a more balanced assessment to the pluses and minuses of evangelism and Christian mission than some commentators whose background is more exclusively Euro-American.

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. Thanks for sending this on with your comments. Some rather critical or ‘raw’ issues pointed out here…both for people on this side of the globe, but pertaining to the other side of it as well. Certainly is always on my mind…
    Blessings, new & richer to and thru you in 2019
    Appreciating you,
    Gordon (Clsn)
    ________________________________

    • Thanks and great to hear from you, Gordon! I recall fondly your visit to Edwardes College in Peshawar. Blessings to you in your good global work.

  2. Titus As one who grew up in mission and has served in mission, I am surprised that you did not note that there is a long, effective, holistic mission history in Nepal – one that was built with great sacrifice, and ecumenical cooperation. It too had certain paternalistic limitations but the Nepalis are hardly an unreached people.

    While I support evangelism done with respect I do not think encouraging a high school student’s belief that they have some superior knowledge is wise or helpful in the long run to the student. In her defense it does not sound like the adults wanting to take her there are well enough informed to be leading such a trip. It is as a Secretary General of the CNI said, too likely to be “one night stand” evangelism without committed follow up and partnership.

    • Thanks, Will, for your good comment.

      On Nepal, it is quite true there is a long and fine tradition of Christian mission there. Especially notable is the ecumenical United Mission to Nepal (UMN), founded in 1954, and I myself was delivered into this world by Dr. Bethel Fleming, a UMN missionary physician who worked in Kathmandu with her husband Dr. Robert L. Fleming. The first missionary society to begin work in Nepal was not western but the Peace of Christ Brotherhood of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church in 1952, and other churches indigenous to India have long been active in Nepal. In 2,000 there were about 50 Christian groups in Nepal, some of them founded by indigenous Nepali evangelists. The country’s population in 2000 was about 24 million, and the 575,000 Christians constituted 2.4%. Given the mountainous geography of Nepal and the presence of six major and 70 minor languages, it’s not surprising that about half the population is considered unevangelized, so the term ‘unreached people’ is not inappropriate for a substantial portion of the population.

      I share Will’s caution about high school students being launched on such a venture, especially on a short-term basis. It’s certainly not something I would recommend out of the blue. Yet it’s possible that a teacher at the Christian school concerned has a connection with a teacher at a school in Nepal and what is being considered is a youth-to-youth encounter in which faith will be discussed from both sides. We don’t have information from the letter writer about how this particular mission trip was generated.

      The projected venture may share the weakness of many short-term mission trips, namely, that unprepared people are launched into encounters with people about whom they know little in order to fulfill goals that are either unrealistic or ill conceived over periods of time in which it is difficult or impossible to accomplish anything! There is now a substantial body of missiological literature examining this phenomenon, which unfortunately is the major mode of mission from many western churches today. My own longstanding recommendation has been to jettison the term ‘short-term mission trip’ altogether and design such journeys as pilgrimages into another community’s experience of God. Such journeys would have no projects, no ‘work’ to be done, but simply relationships to be built around a shared experience of God.

      The concern of the letter writer to ‘The Ethicist’ is not with such details of mission strategy but rather with the legitimacy of evangelism in international, cross-cultural mission. My guess is that she would have the same concern if the group had been a group of adults who had become proficient in Nepali, had studied deeply in Hinduism and planned to be there for five years. It is at that philosophical level that Kwame Appiah is responding to her.


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