by Miriam Adeney
Lots of words offend: church, evangelical, Christian, Republican, Democrat, American, Christ. If a word offends a significant segment of our audience, let’s avoid that word when talking with them. No sense rubbing salt in a wound when it’s not necessary. Find an alternative, and keep communicating.
But in more receptive contexts, the precision and connotation of that word may commend its continued use.
For many people, it is not the word “mission” that offends, but the very concept of Christian witness. Secular, young professionals in the U.S. often display a knee-jerk reaction against “mission,” no matter what it is called. The Dalai Lama’s Buddhist witness is charming, they think. Muslim witness is welcome as evidence of the diversity and tolerance in our communities. But in their view, witness to Jesus Christ connotes ignorance, colonialism, and manipulation. One illustration of this comes from Ross Douthat, who wrote:
Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities…The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions. Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts. (Douthat 2010, A11)
According to Rick Richardson, when a Christian named Daniel went to work in a Starbucks coffee shop, he got some surprises:
One surprise was that all 21 people he worked with…were very positive toward God and spirituality. A second surprise was that all were interested in spiritual things but not in Christians, Christianity, or the church…Almost everyone thought they knew what Christianity was about and had decided they didn’t want it. The biggest thing Daniel learned is that people in this generation have a prior question of trust that must be addressed before he can have meaningful spiritual conversations with them. (Richardson 2006, 65-66)
Yes, we want words that won’t offend. They will come when we enter into our neighbor’s world with love. For example, our neighbor may think that we bash those who are homosexual. So if we do support legislation against homosexual marriage, we must also actively protest hate crimes towards those who are homosexual, and we must entertain colleagues who are homosexual in our homes. Or, if our neighbor thinks Christians want to dominate and exploit the earth, we must join in humble stewardship of the ecology and awe at the mysteries of the cosmos.
And then we must witness. We must mention the Lord God at every reasonable opportunity, “always ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us” (1 Pet. 3:15). Tax problems, car problems, neighbor problems, girlfriend problems—in whatever situation we find our neighbor in, we must ask, “Would it be okay if we prayed—if we brought it to God right now?” The joy of the Lord must shine through us. We must be different where it counts.
“Mission” is not an uncommon word, after all. Secular organizations have mission statements, and carry out missions. And while Christian missions have negative baggage, they also have well-known contributions. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff writes,
In Africa, you repeatedly find diplomats, UN staff, and aid organizations in the capitals. And then you go to the remote villages and towns where Western help is most needed, and aid workers are suddenly scarce…But the people you almost inevitably encounter are the missionary doctors. (Kristoff and WuDunn 2009, 142)
In the end, people won’t care so much about our terminology as whether we identify with their causes and concerns. Isn’t that our priority?
Douthat, Ross. 2010. “White Grievance That’s Justified.” Seattle Times. July 20.
Kristoff, Nicholas and Sheryl WuDunn. 2009. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Richardson, Rick. 2006. Reimagining Evangelism. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Miriam Adeney is an anthropologist in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University, and author of Kingdom without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity (InterVarsity Press, 2009).
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 234-235. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.