Updated: Jul 14
Constantine. Crusades. Conquistadores. Colonization.
When we think about the purpose and function of religious movements that have crossed cultures motivated by Christian evangelism, it is easy to see how the Gospel has often been married to imperialism and the advancement of Western influence.
The evidence has grown significantly in recent years to present a case against the ethics of international missions (especially short-term missions). There is a growing sentiment in social thought that proselytizing, that is converting or attempting to convert someone from one religion to another, is highly unethical.
In fact, in their book Good Faith, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons report that 83% of U.S. adults who are religiously unaffiliated believe that sharing one’s faith in the hopes that another person will convert is “extreme.”
In 2020, the International Mission Board published a significant research study in partnership with Barna examining the future of Christian missions. Overall, more than 70% of engaged churchgoers of any age agree that mission work is very valuable.
The report highlights a significant data capture, however, that I find interesting.
Supportive skeptics—that is, engaged Christians who don’t consider missionary work “very valuable” but nonetheless are engaged in giving to or going on mission—seem to be more concerned than others about the shameful parts of mission history.
For “supportive skeptics” ages 18-34, 63% say that Christianity should fix its reputation before doing more missions.
I remember when I was getting ready to move abroad through the support of a sending church, someone I worked with asked, “Why do you feel like you need to go somewhere you weren’t invited to try and change peoples’ beliefs?”
That is honestly such a valid question. And it remains the question many people are asking at the intersection of ethics and evangelism.
Is it ethical to try and change someone’s belief system?
Is it ethical to impact a culture to the extent that it is forever altered?
Is it ethical to use humanitarian aid as a means of sharing our faith?
It has been a healthy and much needed practice to consider the negative effects of our cross-cultural engagement, and those of us courageous enough to listen have learned that our intentions to “help” others have many times led to harming those individuals and their communities, instead.
Many of you, like me, have spent years deconstructing your theology…and that includes your missional strategies and feelings about proselytizing. We have heard the critiques of missions, and so often they are valid and righteous and true.
The problem comes when we allow the critiques of missions to paralyze us rather than using those same critiques to make us better stewards of the Gospel.
At Kindred Exchange, we believe there is a better path forward. We are completely committed to the practice of sharing our faith, but in doing so through authentic relationship, humble connection, and generous hospitality.
The story of Jesus is Good News because it ushers in hope. It doesn’t uphold one race above another. It doesn’t distinguish between nationalities or socioeconomic statuses or genders. Good News for you is Good News for me, and it is Good News for anyone who is able to receive it.
We pervert the power of the Gospel when we mix it with our Western culture and then present it to different people group. We pervert the power of the Gospel when we pair it with a theology that is only relevant in a certain time or a certain place.
Sing a new song to the Lord!
Let the whole earth sing to the Lord!
Sing to the Lord; praise his name.
Each day proclaim the good news that he saves.
Publish his glorious deeds among the nations.
Tell everyone about the amazing things he does.
Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise!
Too often, Western missionaries have perceived themselves to be the official holders of the Gospel message. We have believed that we are “taking God to ______” or are the ushers of enlightenment to exotic lands.
And this thinking couldn’t be more corrupt in ignoring God as the author of mission, already pursuing His people across the globe in ways beyond our thought and imagination.
It is still very much our responsibility and our mandate from Christ to be salt and light throughout the world (Matthew 28:16-20). In addition, the love of Christ compels us to share hope and mercy with others (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
But the entire discipleship practice of Christ as he modeled mission on Earth was subversive. It was never connected to an empire, to a people group, to a gender, or to an income bracket.
What’s more, Jesus pushed on these man-made perceptions of power and turned them on their heads. He questioned earthly authority as he established his own authority (Pilate in Matthew 27). He disrupted social systems as he pursued justice (healing the lame on the Sabbath in John 5:1-15). He entertained corrupt government officials in order to bring peace into their lives (Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10).
We participate in mission not because we want to make people more like us, but to
invite our neighbors into a redemption experience that connects us all at the foot of the cross.
We pursue the hearts of man through mission not to grow our influence, but because Christ is now living in us to pursue his people.
We model the mission of God not to be more powerful, but to surrender our lives to a global movement of believers in committed unity to Christ’s bride, the Church.
If we believe in sharing Truth ethically and effectively, we will re-examine our ways of practicing mission and allow the life of Jesus to show us how to pursue our neighbors in love, compassion, empathy, and courage.
We will lead first with our own humanity -- our own salvation, our own brokenness, and our own hope.
Evangelism loses its ethics when it centers a particular nationality, race, or status. And sharing our faith across cultures requires a keen awareness of our own cultural biases.
When Christian missions are rooted in love, connection, and relationship, however, we see an authentic outpouring of hospitality. We invite our global neighbors into a timeless narrative of a generous God and a merciful Savior pursuing His people for an eternal glory.
Never to build an army, but always to share community within the Kingdom...this is how we ethically and honestly engage the Great Commission.
JOIN US THIS SUMMER FOR A ONE DAY VIRTUAL GATHERING
If you enjoyed this blog post, you won't want to miss Kindred Conference!
Following a year of travel bans and flight cancellations, routine short-term missions trips facilitated by churches, student ministries and other organizations have been largely put on pause. We believe the time is now to thoughtfully engage in reframing and reimagining our short-term missional efforts in ways that fully consider what is the most ethical, the most sustainable, the most healthy, and the most holy way forward in our pursuits abroad. Join us this summer for a one-day virtual gathering where we will unpack, reevaluate and broaden our vision for how to best steward the gospel of Jesus Christ across cultures.
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