When I was growing up, “missions” was a big deal, and being a missionary was considered a high calling. I heard passionate messages not only from missionaries themselves, but also from pastors and evangelists about how God might call some of us into ministry, and maybe even to give our lives to serve overseas. This was, it seemed, the real stuff of ministry. Were we ready to “count the cost?” To give our lives to sharing the good news with a people who were very different from us? At many a youth conventions and camp service I sincerely told the Lord that I would go wherever I was called. Many of us did. We were ready and willing.
Things have changed. The change is fascinating, actually, because the first thing we realize is that Millennials (admittedly not the youngest generation anymore) feel more equipped, or even “gifted,” at sharing their faith than previous generations.1 If someone asks them questions about their faith, 73% feel they can adequately respond.2 In previous generations where we placed a greater emphasized on missions, the results were different – only 66% of Gen Xers, 59% of Boomers, and 56% of Elders felt the same.3 But here’s where things get strange, because while Millennials feel more equipped than previous generations to share their faith, “Almost half of Millennials (47%) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.”4 Evangelicals are feeling increasingly equipped, yet more and more unwilling to evangelize, particularly with people from other faith traditions.
Can we blame them? Our young are suffering the consequences of our often deeply harmful mission endeavors and projects. Colonialism is a word they are very familiar with. Their non-Christian friends, for the record, are also very familiar with this word and familiar with how deeply connected to Christianity it is. Please understand, my intent is not to paint all missionaries as having participated in the colonial agenda. This, of course, would be unfair. I’m writing this as a missionary. Still, much of what many of us heard in regards to mission and evangelism was how we were to bring the light, the gift, and the truth to others. We possessed what they needed. “They” had a God-shaped hole in their hearts, while we had the missing piece in our hands. We were the givers, they the receivers. And here things get kind of tricky, don’t they, because there’s some truth in some of these images. There are some Biblical resonances, even. But while there’s some truth – yes we should let the light shine through us; yes we should proclaim the Truth that is Jesus – these images don’t tell the whole truth about mission. If this is all that mission is, and I believe that this is what many of our young believe it is, its very dangerous. To state it boldly, if this is all that mission is, we aren’t wrong to abandon it. What, then?
Enter Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin refuses the dangerous simplicity in these metaphors without ignoring the metaphors completely. Take light, for example. When we believe that we are the sole possessors of light, we will do whatever it takes to “win” people “by any means necessary.” Newbigin renounces this agenda and its implications while using the metaphor of light:
“There is something deeply wrong when Christians imagine that loyalty to Jesus requires them to belittle the manifest presence of the light in the lives of men and women who do not acknowledge him, to seek out points of weakness, to ferret out hidden sins and deceptions as a means of commending the gospel. If we love the light and walk in the light we will also rejoice in the light wherever we find it — even the smallest gleams of it in the surrounding darkness.”Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1978, this ed. 1995), 175
Notice that while we walk in the light, we don’t possess the light. We are witnesses to it, not possessors of it. Newbigin is emphatic about this point:
“The purpose of dialogue for the Christian is obedient witness to Jesus Christ, who is not the property of the church but the Lord of the church and of all people and who is glorified as the living Holy Spirit takes all that the Father has given to humankind — all people of every creed and culture — and declares it to the church as that which belongs to Christ as Lord. In this encounter the church is changed, the world is changed, and Christ is glorified.”ibid. 182-183
Jesus is not the property of the Church. Jesus is the Lord of the Church. The point of mission, then, is not simply for the other to be changed. No! “In this encounter the church is changed, the world is changed, and Christ is glorified.” Mission and evangelism, then, is incredibly risky business. Risky because the Light to which we witness will not only shine in the heart of the other, but through the heart of the other to us, exposing our frailty, lack of faith, and disobedience.
“Obedient witness to Christ means that whenever we come with another person (Christian or not) into the presence of the cross, we are prepared to receive judgment and correction, to find that our Christianity hides within its appearance of obedience the reality of disobedience. Each meeting with a non-Christian partner in dialogue therefore puts my own Christianity at risk.”ibid. 182
The point of mission, then, is not merely the conversion of the other, but the conversion of ourselves as well.
“We participate in the dialogue believing and expecting that the Holy Spirit can and will use this dialogue to do his own sovereign work, to glorify Jesus by converting to him both the partners in the dialogue…The Christian partner must recognize that the result of the dialogue may be a profound change in himself or herself.”ibid. 186, emphasis mine
Note that Newbigin doesn’t shy away from the conversion of the other: “The Christian will also believe and expect that the Holy Spirit can use the dialogue as the occasion for the conversion of his partner to faith in Jesus.”5 But the conversion of the other is not the only point. Maybe not even the primary point. In mission, we invite God to convert us. Again, “in this encounter the church is changed, the world is changed, and Christ is glorified.”
So here is where I want to challenge those who are nervous to engage in mission. If mission is only about changing the other, you’re right to be wary. Renounce that. Leave it behind. But this is not what true mission is actually about. Mission is as much about our own conversion as it is anyone else’s. So friends, engage in mission, even if for your own sake. But there is a second related challenge here, and it is frightening in a sense. The challenge seems simple enough: enter into dialogue with people who are very different than you. The reason this is frightening, though, is because it will expose you, potentially in may ways. It will put your safe faith at risk. Dr. R. Sundarara Rajan, a Hindu scholar, wrote that “If it is impossible to lose one’s faith as a result of an encounter with another faith, then I feel that the dialogue has been made safe from all possible risks.”6
He’s right. And that’s scary, especially for our own kids. But it’s true. My sixteen-year-old daughter, Soleil, recently said this in a paper she wrote on Weisel’s Night: “Often, people are misled into thinking that faith is following without question, this is not the case. Faith is what happens when an individual is comfortable enough to explore questions that could lead to a loss of faith.” She’s not wrong. To really enter into dialogue with someone from another faith, or with no faith, is risky business. If it’s not risky, it’s not genuine. It’s not true. And so, while I understand that many of our young are rightfully afraid of colonialism, I might add my own observation that they’re also afraid of risky dialogue which might change them. I work in a multi-faith centre (Faith and Spirituality Centre) at a secular University. You know who is largely absent from this beautiful, albeit complicated space? Evangelical students. There are some, of course, and they’re amazing. But mostly, they’re the last to show up. Why? I think they’re afraid of what might happen. Perhaps we’ve trained them to be afraid. And in a sense, maybe they should be afraid.
So why, with such risk, would I want to call a generation back to mission? Because I trust the power of the Spirit. Not our ingenuity or innovation. The Spirit. But moving to the rhythm of the Spirit has always been risky business. After all, who knows where the Wind will blow us, and how the light of Christ will penetrate our own darkness! As Rowan Williams writes:
God is “the light of the world” in his Son Jesus, yet that interruption, that light cutting through our darkness, is not a comfortable clearing up of problems and smoothing out of our difficulties and upsets. On the contrary, it brings on a kind of vertigo; it may make me a stranger to myself, to everything I have ever taken for granted. I have to find a new way of knowing myself, identifying myself, uttering myself, talking of myself, imagine myself. In short, when God’s light breaks on my darkness, the first thing I know is that I don’t know, and never really did.Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 1995), 100
But despite of this disorientation, the Spirit intends to move us out of our small and cramped lives and into the wild and wide open space of the Kingdom of Jesus. The Spirit intends this for the whole world! And so while risky, I trust the Spirit not only with my own life, but with my with my kids’ lives, and your kid’s lives too. We don’t risk alone. We can trust the Spirit. So, let’s engage in mission, and call a generation to engage in the risk of mission so that we – the church and the world – can be changed, and so that Christ can be glorified.
1 Barna Group, “Almost Half of Practicing Millennials Say Evangelism is Wrong,” Barna, February 5th, 2019, https://www.barna.com/research/millennials-oppose-evangelism/.
5 ibid. 187