by Alex Araujo
Our preference for methods and numbers over content may be watering down the gospel we take to the nations.
A few years ago I met a wonderful lady in Brazil who identified herself as a Catholic charismatic-in other words, one of "us." As soon as she learned I was an evangelical, she asked what I thought of "our Lady the Virgin Mary." A good-natured conversation followed, Bibles were opened (hers and mine), and I learned that for her the Virgin Mary was a co-redeemer with Christ who helps make salvation possible. Not only that, Mary is supposedly more likely to hear and answer our prayers, because she has the sensitive heart of a mother. Her son Jesus is more inclined to listen to her, being a respectful son, than he would to listen to us directly. Therefore, this woman’s devotional life was directed to a relationship with the virgin Mary rather than with Christ. She also showed me a medal of St. Theresa of Avila, to whom she prayed whenever she needed spiritual assistance.
I have met others like her, who are counted in our statistics as being with us, as being part of the mission force rather than the mission field. I am less concerned in this article with whether this good woman is going to heaven or hell. But she illustrates some of the unorthodox beliefs we evangelicals are including in our statistics under the designation "Christian."
At the Global Consultation on World Evangelization in Singapore in January, 1989-the meeting that launched the AD2000 Movement-representatives of the church from many countries met around the central theme of coordinating plans for world evangelization by the year 2000.
As I looked through the list of 124-plus subject tracks, not one dealt with the meaning and content of evangelization. The absence was striking in a consultation on world evangelization, especially in view of the diversity of groups present, from traditional denominations to Pentecostals and the historically more recent charismatics. Even Roman Catholics were present to share their plan.
When I asked the organizers about the omission, they said the topic would be too divisive, and that the purpose of the gathering was to bring people together, not divide them.
I can understand the concern for unity, as there would likely be some heated debate between those who advocate a more comprehensive definition of evangelization and those who feel it would be sufficient to use a minimal approach. Yet if the meaning and content of evangelization was not an appropriate topic for a consultation on world evangelization, where and when would it ever be appropriate?
I was disturbed that the fear of division superseded the need for a common understanding of the task. How could we talk about coordination and cooperation in evangelization when we might have different concepts of what is to be done?
Last summer’s AD2000 Movement gathering in Pretoria, South Africa, seems in tune with the first one in Singapore. "A common theme of many speakers throughout the consultation," says Rick Wood, "was ‘unity in diversity.’" Diversity is acknowledged and unity pursued. But since this diversity often is about how various groups understand the gospel and what is to be preached to the nations, it is not surprising that again the content of the gospel was not a major discussion topic, to judge by Mission Frontiers’ extensive report. In fact, the topic was mentioned briefly as Point 4 of the document issued by mission educators in their separate meeting. However, it is not found anywhere else in the publication, nor in any other report or news release I have read concerning that event.
Perhaps this lapse is not merely an attempt to avoid argument and division. Perhaps the organizers simply assumed that a consensus already exists. Perhaps today’s evangelicals optimistically think that any movement or entity calling itself Christian has the same definition of evangelization. But this is hardly a safe assumption. Historically evangelicals have taken a very clear stand concerning the nature, process, and means of salvation, and consequently on the meaning of evangelization.
This has set us apart as a distinct movement. But are present-day evangelicals changing? We seem to be focusing all our energies on statistics and methodology while we may no longer share the same understanding of world evangelization. I fear that numbers and methods have become our predominant concern, at the expense of content.
In recent years we seem to have shifted our paradigm of how we see ourselves in relation to the world from Christian belief to Christendom, from the call to repentance and a life of faith and obedience to Christ to a concern with a visible, collective, organized Christian presence, a sociological force to be seen and reckoned with by the non-Christian world. This is perhaps most evident in the way we talk about our "spiritual warfare" with Islam, or the way we embrace secondary, though worthy, sociological and political agendas. Our popular terminology is that of a clash of religious cultures, and seems excessively preoccupied with great numbers and comparative statistics, with territorial mapping and war room strategies.
With this kind of mindset, it is no wonder we find it extremely important to be as flexible as possible with our definitions of Christian and of evangelization, so that we can claim large numbers. We publicize widely and with fanfare the projections that Africa will be a Christian continent by the year 2000, even though we know quite well that the content of what is being preached as gospel throughout Africa varies so dramatically that we can’t really make any generalizations about the degree of Christian-ness in that continent. We have let statistics go to our head, and we have forgotten the essence of the message we preach.
In Mozambique I met members and pastors of "Christian" churches in which animals are regularly and ceremonially sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins, in a syncretism of pagan magic ritual and Old Testament teaching. They apparently have never grasped Jesus’s "once and for all" sacrifice.
More recently in the U.S., a number of leading evangelicals signed a joint statement with Roman Catholics, affirming the unity of our faith and witness in the world. In this statement, historical differences in doctrine between evangelicals and Catholics are seen mostly as signs of spiritual weakness and intolerance rather than as matters essential to biblical faith. With a stroke of the pen those evangelicals who signed it were implying, by force of logic, that the Protestant Reformers were, after all, dealing with secondary issues not pertinent to the essence of the faith. Since the evangelical movement has been based on the critical necessity of affirming the four sola of the Reformation (Christ only, Scripture only, faith only, grace only), their position seems to contradict the historical foundations of the evangelical movement.
The theme at an annual meeting of the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association was how to learn to accept and deal with diversity in world missions. I am thankful that we have left behind, as mainstream evangelicals, much of the petty divisiveness over nonessential matters, and that there is a growing willingness to work together. I would not want to reverse this trend. Yet unless we clarify our terms frequently in these rapidly changing times, we may, in our enthusiasm for unity, forget the essentials of the faith and discard them along with the nonessentials. We would never do this consciously, of course. But it can happen almost automatically, especially when we censor discussion for fear of divisive-ness. In our fear, we assume that we all agree rather than honestly and lovingly comparing notes to make sure.
Along with our love affair with diversity and unity we have a consuming fear of smallness. We seem to fear that if we cannot report great numbers of converts throughout the world it will mean the church is losing the battle. We scare ourselves with statistical comparisons with other religions, and we keep a running tally of how many peoples we can claim to our side. Gone is the awareness of the simple teaching of Jesus that narrow is the gate and straight the way that lead to eternal life, and few there are that walk in it. Brazil is often touted as one country where evangelicals have grown very fast. Argentina is another. It seems that the less we know about another country, the more easily we idealize the meaning of their church growth, while we are very critical of what we know best, the church in our own country. Our big numbers for Brazil and other countries seem to hide important qualifications. Materialism, superstition, and uninformed evangelicalism form a new syncretism in many places.
During my three years of traveling throughout Brazil in the 1980s on behalf of the Latin American missionary movement COMIBAM, I made a point to ask pastors about the degree of commitment of their congregations. I asked the pastor of a church of about 200 members how many could he count on to participate in a weekend outreach program, or for any church program focused on others. His response was around 10 percent (20 or so). Then he tried to name those he could count on, and he stopped before using up all his fingers. Less than 10 in a church of 200. It was about the same with all those I asked. Not a scientific survey, true, but we don’t have to go to Brazil to know its truth. Just ask around in your own church. So if, for example, we assume a conservative number for Brazilian evangelicals (including Catholic charismatics) of around 20 million, could we count on more than 200,000 serious believers in the country? We also must remember that our counting system is designed to count those who come in through the front door, but not those who go out.
I have heard reports of significant numbers who leave the church. Could it be that we are preaching a watered down or distorted gospel, so that people easily assent to it, but get disappointed with its powerlessness and soon walk out of the church? What is the gospel, and how much does it matter to define it clearly? If people are saying, "I believe in Jesus," isn’t that sufficient? If so, we will do well to develop a mission strategy that focuses on this minimal approach, so that we can cover the world faster. If it is not sufficient, our strategies will require a lot more time and effort.
Our belief in big numbers and methods, and fear of divisiveness, can easily dilute our concern with the essence of the saving message. True, we cannot tell for sure which individuals are truly saved-only God knows the heart. But our love affair with numbers and methods at the expense of content may cause us to grossly misjudge the nature and scope of the task ahead of us and what concept of evangelization is guiding our mission effort. We must face the issue of the content of the gospel and the meaning of evangelization, lest most of our present missions effort be for nothing.
Alex Araujo is director of international operations for Partners International, San Jose, Calif. He is a native of Brazil.
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