Jewish Journal


July 2, 2010

Missionaries: serve others or spread the gospel?



It’s been a good week here at The God Blog.

It started at the Biltmore Hotel on Sunday, when the Los Angeles Press Club named this blog SoCal’s best individually written blog for the second time in three years. Then today I landed my first column in the Wall Street Journal.

(The arc of my opinionating has been funny. I’ve now published three columns in my career. The first was an abysmal piece about getting rich in college for the UCLA Daily Bruin; the second, about Jewish financial scapegoating, ended up in the Christian Science Monitor last February; and today changes to American Christian missions landed me in the foreign fields of a paper way beyond my reading level.)

The focus of today’s column is that Christian missions have gone from spreading the gospel to serving those in need. These changes mere general cultural trends toward doing social justice work, but not prioritizing the need to get others to share your belief system.

An excerpt:

“At (1910) Edinburgh, people thought they were going to take over the world,” said C. Douglas McConnell, dean of Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies in his opening remarks. “And now many of our students wonder if they should even try.”

Indeed, colonialism is dead (thankfully). But the term “missions” itself now carries with it a negative connotation, even in politically and theologically conservative circles. Christians today typically travel abroad to serve others, but not necessarily to spread the gospel.

While meaning well and certainly doing good, this form of outreach has allowed the pendulum to swing too far from 1910. Today, Christian missionaries need to balance both actions and words.

To be sure, humanitarian organizations that come from a Christian place – I discuss Invisible Children – are doing great work. And no one expects every organization that is either Christian or is fueled by Christian values to couch their service in the skin of evangelism. But when they don’t, the motivations behind their service are often missed:

Spreading Christianity through deeds alone aligns with a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” But research suggests that non-Christians often miss the message without the words.

This reminds me of philanthropic challenges in the Jewish community. Lots of people want to donate to sexy, pet projects; no one wants to give money to keep up the community-run Jewish cemetery.

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