by Donald McGavran
For over a hundred years Christian mission has been understood to be very largely proclamation. A major board has declared that “the supreme and controlling purpose of the Christian mission to the world is to proclaim Christ as divine and only Saviour,” and this declaration is typical of those made by scores of missionary societies.
For over a hundred years Christian mission has been understood to be very largely proclamation. A major board has declared that "the supreme and controlling purpose of the Christian Mission to the world is to proclaim Christ as divine and only Saviour," and this declaration is typical of those made by scores of missionary societies.
Recently, the word proclamation has seemed to some in ecumenical circles "too harsh, direct, and ineffective," and they have begun to use the word presence. "Proclamation" needs little explanation, for it is thoroughly biblical and its meanings are clear. "Presence" on the contrary, is so new and so fashionable that it is used in many ways and with many meanings.
"Christian Mission," too, has come to be an ambiguous term. Its meaning thirty years ago was clear; but today, in the process of being captured by one wing of the church, it says many, many different things. Both presence and mission need careful definition.
I use mission in the classical sense—namely as that complex of activities whose chief purpose is "to make Jesus Christ known as Lord and Saviour and persuade men to become His disciples and responsible members of His Church." This has been its well-nigh universal meaning. Whether by European or Asian Churches, as long as the purpose was to invite men into a redemptive relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the activity was called mission.
The unfortunate turn of events of the last twenty years, by which mission is taken by many to mean "everything Christians do outside the four walls of their church," contributes nothing but confusion. Today, according to these apostles of obscurantism, the church doing anything at all which may be considered the will of God is dubbed "the church in mission." What our fathers called simply "doing God’s will" is today in grandiose phrase called "sharing in the missio Dei."
Coming now to the word presence, many are using it. Its twin sister dialogue is even more common. Presence-dialogue is a coat of many colors. No other use, however, is as well-described and as consistent over several publications as Canon Max Warren’s. None has sought so faithfully to be true to classical mission. Consequently, I concentrate on his definition.
Back of the presence school of thought, says Warren, lie three great challenges being thrown out by the peoples of Asia and Africa in their revolt against domination by the West. "First, a critical evaluation of the Christian religion… as something inherently Western. . . Second, can Christians of the West accept the fact that the expression which Christianity will receive in its Asian and African forms … will be very different from what we know in the West?"
Challenges one and two are background. I, therefore, pass them by. Challenge three-the matrix of presence-asks: Can the Christian church coexist with other religions? Warren in his introduction to Taylor’s “Primal Vision” says:
"The Christian Church has not yet seriously faced the theological problem of ‘coexistence’ with other religions. The very term seems to imply the acceptance of some limitation of the universal relevance of the Gospel. Can that be accepted? … the answer must be ‘no’."
Canon Warren then goes on to say:
"Are we then shut up to … what in some disguise or other must be an aggressive attack on the deeply held convictions of those who live by other faiths than our own?"
This question is the mother of presence. One way or another, this underlies the concept and all of its related concepts. As we meet other religions, are we shut up to aggressive attach? Canon Warren says no and proposes the complex way of presence, as the via media lying between aggressive attack and coexistence.
Advocates of presence are pleading for a respectful approach to non-Christian religions. They plead from several different grounds:(1) That presence is the Christian attitude toward other religions. One must be scrupulously fair to others. Only as Christians put themselves in another man’s shoes can they really understand the depths of his religion. Until they feel the reasonableness and the attraction of the secularist’s position, for example, they do not really understand secularism. Until they look at Islam through the eyes of a Moslem and permit themselves to glory in its grandeur, they have not been "Christian" toward it.
(2) Others plead for the respectful approach from pragmatic grounds. When Europe ruled the world, they say, we might count on our ideas being accepted, but when we look out at more than a hundred sovereign non-Christian states, we must avoid setting ourselves over against them. We must not appear to them to be a hostile camp from which we shout out the Gospel. If we appear to occupy that position* non-Christians will automatically reject our message, because it comes from the enemy. Running through much of the presence and dialogue apologetic is the pragmatic need to maintain communication, as essential to any transmission of the Gospel.
(3) Some missiologists advocate presence as the only safe stance. Christians are tiny minorities in many lands and will remain so—they think—for generations. They will not be permitted to proclaim the Gospel. They can speak of Christ—if at all—only in the veiled form of dialogue or presence.
It is noteworthy that a very early user of presence was Charles de Foucauld, a Roman Catholic missionary to North Africa. He defined a missionary as "one who is there with a presence willed and determined as a witness to the love of God in Christ"—a very good definition of mission, too, in Algeria where your throat will be cut before morning if you preach effectively for conversion. I call this the prudent ground for advocating presence.
Evangelicals see no problem in presence on any of these three grounds. As long as the goal is not coexistence in any form or disguise, as long as the goal is that Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures be accepted, and the respectful approach is a means to that end, it is acceptable. The Christian attitude to other religions, the use of methods which offer maximum communication, keep Christians from preaching the Gospel at others, and give Christians a chance to live long enough to preach it effectively, are all defensible. It would be easy to illustrate each from the history of mission. I endorse presence when the goal is that Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures be believed, loved, obeyed, and followed into the waters of baptism.
Let us now take up the four "acts" which for Canon Warren comprise the way of presence.
The first is that we gladly accept "the new situation in which the Christian faith can everywhere be distinguished from its past historical association with Western political, economic and cultural aggression." I have nothing but cordial approbation of this. Much churchly life in Eurica is the Christian faith dressed in Eurican garments—which do not fit Afericasians. Christian mission should, indeed, require nothing of Afericasian Christians (or of Eurican Christians for that matter) but what can be proved from the Bible. Everything else is adiaphora.
The second act is "deep humility. We must lay aside all feelings of superiority of culture, race, or nation." Evangelicals agree entirely that the missionary must renounce all pride in his personal, racial, or national attributes. He has nothing but what God has given him, and there is no scientific reason to judge his race superior to others. All feelings of white superiority, educational superiority, or high caste superiority are sinful. All such pride and arrogance must go.But there is one point at which evangelicals demur. The treasure we have (in admittedly earthen vessels) is superior to everything that natural man possesses, whether he be white, brown, yellow or black. It is at this point that D.T. Niles’ famous statement errs. Once the beggar has found food, he is no longer hungry; once he has found the treasure, he is no longer a beggar. While Peter remains a Galilean peasant, in Christ he is one of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. He has come out of darkness into God’s marvellous light. To commend Christ to others, he must not falsely maintain that he is still in darkness. Is the Christian not in danger of being hypocritical if he protests that he is just one beggar telling another where to find food? How to speak of the vessel as we should, without demeaning the treasure—that is the problem.
In the third act Warren says, "We must approach the man of another faith than our own in a spirit of expectancy to find how God has been speaking to him and what new understandings of grace and love of God we may ourselves discover in this encounter.. . God was there before we arrived." I welcome what the presence school of thought seeks here to achieve.
Understanding of and appreciation for what may be true in ancient and modem religions is reasonable and necessary in the presentation of the Gospel, so that I do not see how anyone can object to it. But the presence school gives a theological ground for the appreciative attitude—and that is a different thing entirely.
For example, many good counsels and clear insights as to man and God can be found in Tulsi Das’ Ramayan (which is the common scripture in the part of India where I was a missionary), but there is also much that is mistaken, some that is foolish, and a little that is gross. We Christians would never dream of teaching the Ramayan to our children as Scripture— what God has revealed. In what sense then can we sit down with our Hindu friend in a spirit of expectancy to find how the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has been speaking to him through the Ramayan. Does God speak out of both sides of His mouth? Is he the Author of double talk—affirming to the Theravada Buddhist that there is no God and to the Christian that God is and is intensely personal?
Let us see what biblical base there is for grounding our appreciation of other religions and systems of thought in an alleged revelation by God of Himself in those religions. Paul’s address on Mars Hill shows clearly how he dealt with the matter. He announced the solidarity of the human family and affirmed that God is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being. He suggested that, "in the hope that men might feel after Him and find Him," God made man with religious longings.
After this Paul did not proceed to explore Socrates, Plato, and others to find what God had told them. Instead, Paul with magnificent honesty says, with a wave of the hand toward the temples that crowned the Acropolis, "We ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands ail men everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the resurrected and living Jesus."
Paul no doubt appreciated the noble principles, philosophical framework of Greek thought, and insights that eventually flowered into the sciences of the West; but Paul never gave his appreciation a theological ground. He never suggested that Greek religion had been revealed by God, nor that it was a witness to God.In the famous passage (Acts 14:17) where Paul says that "God has not left Himself without witness" he specifically does not mean "witness in the religions of mankind". These he sums up as "vain things," and as "men walking in their own ways." This witness passage should always be read in the light of its later clauses: "Yet He did not leave Himself without witness for He did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." What bore witness to God was the natural fruitfulness of earth, the rain and the sunshine. We have a similar passage in Romans 1:18 and following:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles (Rom. 1:18-23).
It is of first importance to read this passage aright. What God has revealed to man, that is precisely not what the religions say about God. What the religions say about God, Paul calls futile thinking. The propositions of the religions are propositions of senseless, darkened minds. What God was saying to men, what he has clearly shown to them, this they rejected entirely or distorted so badly that it elicited the sternest rebuke of which Paul was capable.
True, idols are not all there is to non-Christian faith-and Islam passionately rejects idols of all sorts. Nevertheless, the existence of a passage such as this, and many other in the Bible, must give us serious pause in any attempt to give theological ground for appreciation.
In the fourth act, Warren says, "We have to ask what is the authentic religious content in the experience of Buddhist, Hindu, Shintoist, Moslem, or Marxist." Here again, the evangelical both agrees and disagrees. He agrees on two grounds. First, that in order to talk intelligently, we must have much knowledge of the other man’s religion. Often in order to win the right to talk, we must demonstrate reasonable familiarity with the thought system of our friends.
Second, evangelicals agree that man is the great discoverer. He seeks to understand. He projects theories to explain the world in which he lives. He constructs ideologies, myths, theorems, and formulae. Many of his discoveries are correct. They adequately explain reality. Many others are ingenious or partially correct. They serve as working hypotheses, until later discoveries closer to the mark, supplant them. The evangelical has no difficulty in honoring man’s religious longings or affirming that he is made in the image of God, fallen and defaced, but nevertheless in God’s image. Evangelicals pay full respect to man the discoverer.
Many of his moral and some of his religious judgments come closer to the mark. Most religions, for example, inveigh against adultery, robbery, and murder. Many religions affirm man’s need for some kind of God, for power greater than himself, or more mana than he possesses.
Hindu theologians discovered the two basic views in soteriology and expressed them in the cat and monkey theories of salvation. Therevada Buddhists probed deep into the psychological aspect of "salvation." If this is what is meant by "the authentic religious content of the experience of the man of other faith," then evangelicals have no difficulty in agreeing that we ought to find out as much about it as we can.Evangelicals disagree with the fourth proposed "act" on two grounds. First, if we define "authentic religious content of the experience of the man of other faith" as "the longing which is behind the myths and symbols"—as Warren does—then we flounder in ambiguity. The game of ascribing religious content to myths and symbols can be played by many different people. The content that Sigmund Freud ascribed would be one thing, that ascribed by Malinowski would be another, and that by some kindly missionary -seeking a little common ground with another faith, and generously resolving to put the highest possible interpretation on myth, dogma, image, and custom, would be something very different.
For example, there are some high meanings in suttee, for those few widows who deeply loved their husbands and were devoted to philosophical Hinduism; but for those who were dragged screaming on to the funeral pyre, suttee had low meanings. "Finding the authentic religious content" may become a hypocritical game in which Christians, to find common ground, adduce high and noble meanings to myths, dogmas, customs, and images, which on the whole are much less than ideal.
Second, if by "authentic religious content" we mean something that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has been saying to non-Christians, other than what he has revealed through the holy Bible, then the evangelical dissents. New light, to be sure, will always break forth from the Scripture. Over the door of Zwingli’s church in Switzerland, I am told, is carved in stone the statement, "If you give the Word of God to the people of God, God will speak to His people through His Word, the message they need on that Day."
God is sovereign. His Word is sharp and living. The Holy Spirit guides men in the very different circumstances in which they live. But the Holy Spirit does not lead in a direction out of harmony with the basic revelation in Jesus Christ the Son, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, dead, buried, and rose again.
Leaving Canon Warren’s four acts, let me now take up two aspects of presence that it shares with other mission methods. First, it should be selectively applied. We are likely to consider presence equally applicable everywhere. This it is not. Consider, for instance, the presence technique of "entering sympathetically into the pains and griefs, and joy and history of our non-Christian friends and seeing how these have determined the premise of their argument."
The presence mode of mission is required in the case of men of other religions who set themselves like flint against the Christian Gospel. As the Christian seeks for ways to proclaim the Gospel to such men, he must seek the genesis of the fears and hostilities that block understanding. He must imagine how he would feel were he in the other man’s shoes.
With the responsive, the case is entirely otherwise—the main task is to give them the Gospel quickly. There is no need "to enter sympathetically into the pains and griefs and joys and history of our non-Christian friends" or to "find out how these
have determined the premise of their argument against Christ." They are advancing no argument against Christ, They want to hear about Him. They want not a glorification of the faith they are leaving, but an introduction to the Savior they are accepting.Second, presence (like all methods and means) should be used only to achieve a correct end. Presence has a great deal in common with identification. We use presence or identification to do something specific. Paul became all things to all men "in order to win some." He would have rejected the idea of becoming a Jew so thoroughly that the desire to win Jews to Christ was diminished. Identification is desirable to the degree that it "wins some" but should never be idolized. Evangelicals are particularly wary of a muddle-headed identification that destroys the very desire to win, or a genial presence that leaves men outside Christ.
1. Evangelicals agree with presence and proclamation as means, but reject them as ends. The end is that men accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and be found in Him, Evangelicals have always practiced both proclamation and presence as means and have always shied away from them as ends.
Proclamation can become an end. In Japan there used to be a band of missionaries whose members passed from town to town, set up a loud speaker, blared forth the Gospel for an hour, then put away their equipment and proceeded to the next town to "preach the Gospel." With these missionaries, apparently, voicing the words of Gospel was the end, and whether any lost son came back to his Father’s house was immaterial.
Presence even more easily becomes an end in itself. The goal tends to become being humble, remembering that God was there before you got there, looking for the good in other religions, appreciating the religious longings in men of other faiths, and putting the most Christian interpretation possible on myths, images, doctrines and customs. And doing all this whether the man for whom Christ died becomes a disciple of His or not.
Frequently presence is inexorably transformed-even against the will of the Christian-from means to end. As the Christian resolves to be "present" with his non-Christian friend, he inches over into religious relativism. The process is as follows:
He starts out by saying, "I respect you. I want to understand you. I want you to understand me. God has been speaking to you. You tell me what He has said to you and I shall tell you what He has said to me. Let us be mutually edified."
But then by degrees the Christian shifts to a new position saying, "Of course, what God has said to you is as valld as what He has said to me," Finaily the Christian says, "Let us agree that the goal is not that you become a Christian or I become a Hindu. These both are ways to God."
Let me say bluntly that mission misconceives its end when it considers either proclamation or presence its basic task. The basic task is for the glory of God to bring men into redemptive relationship to Jesus Christ. The missionary yields himself body and soul to be the instrument of the Holy Spirit in winning men into a life-giving faithful relationship to the crucified and risen Lord. Neither proclamation nor presence, but that is Christian mission.
2. Both proclamation and presence suffer from excessive intellectual emphasis. Both imagine that men come to faith in Jesus Christ for exclusively ideological, theological or intellectual reasons. Populations like those at Lydda and Sharon, those on the day of Pentecost, those which have turned in great numbers, and will turn in still greater numbers, do not become Christian because they have considered all the reasons and find that ABC is more rational than XYZ. They are not argued into Christian faith. The hammer of logic does not beat them into submission.
Rather, all kinds of reasons—social, economic, political, religious, rational, and biblical—combine to lead them to place their faith intelligently on Jesus Christ. Again and again in the New Testament we read that it was the sign the Lord gave them, or the power which went forth from Him, that convinced them. The twelve apostles followed Him for three years largely because they expected him to drive out the Romans and install Himself as an earthly Messiah. Their patriotism and their hatred of the Romans, together with the signs which they saw, and the words of wisdom they heard, all combined to keep them close to His side.
We err when we consider proclamation and presence the sole modes of getting men to weigh the teaching of their own and the Christian religion.
3. An objection, which cannot be levelled against proclamation, is that presence is not a biblical concept. The respectful approach to other religions is not found in the Old Testament. On many occasions God’s messengers spoke and acted very roughly about the Baals and Asherahs. The word presence occurs nearly 200 times in the Bible, but never as a mode of mission.
Something much more direct was practiced by our Lord and His apostles. We do not see Peter on the day of Pentecost appreciating all that was good in the Jewish religion. Stephen was not making a sympathetic approach to the Jews. Paul before Agrippa, after telling about Jesus Christ, says bluntly that he wants all those noble, cultured, and powerful men who had gathered to hear him, to become Christians.
There is good reason for absence of the presence mode of mission in the New Testament. In those days the Gospel was being presented to receptive multitudes. Great people movements were going on. There was no need for the long, patient approach. New Testament Christians were not laying seige to rebellious peoples. Hence presence was not consciously used.
Presence is premission. It is particularly useful to those who plough stony fields. Granting this, it is still a striking fact that in the Bible presence is notable by its absence. This must not be understood as condemnation, but should warn us that presence should be used with care, as servant, not master; means, not end.
4. Presence is used by new Christians. Without anyone teaching them to do so, they and their kinsmen talk endlessly about the new religion and the old religion. At that level, cross fertilization of religion by religion goes on ceaselessly. Cross fertilization went on during patristic days. Christianity, Gnosticism, Mithraism and other religions interacted and practiced "presence" for three hundred years in mutual efforts to win men and women to their ways of life.
As Christianity becomes the religion of more and more men across the world, we shall not have to stress presence. Presence will be there in every living church. As the church advances in each non-Christian sub-culture, she swims in a sea of presence.
What Christians must do is to remember that they are sent into the world to find God’s lost sons and daughters. That is their task. God does not rejoice when lost sons and daughters hear the Gospel with their ears, experience it through social action, or sense it through Christian presence. God rejoices when lost sons and daughters walk back through the front door of His house saying, "Father, I have sinned; make me as one of your hired servants." He rejoices even more when the saved sons and daughters go b&ck out, and through proclamation, when that is fitting, and presence when that is fitting, bring sinners to a saving faith in Jesus Christ and membership in His church.
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