Wednesday, July 07, 2004

What Do Missionaries Do?

The incarnation of God is the only adequate basis for my mission work. Nothing else makes sense.

In the past century, Christians have split down the middle between two “tasks” of the missionary – evangelism or social action. Conservatives have emphasized the “spiritual” message of Christianity with an attendant focus on salvation of the soul. To these kinds of Christians, the only marker of success for me would be the number of souls I save in Cameroon. The stakes of failure are high, because those whom I fail to convert are going to hell!

Liberals have tended to come down on the side of the “social” message of Christianity, choosing to do good works. If I follow this model, then my success would be graded in terms of improvement of quality of life for the people with whom I live. After-life matters are politely stood aside, since God is likely to save all humanity anyway.

These two kinds of missionaries are at opposite ends in terms of goals and motives. One builds churches, the other builds hospitals. One preaches revivals, the other preaches good health. Countless others have tried to bridge the two concerns, or close the gap between the two.

Incarnation says that this is a false dichotomy. When the Incarnation occurred, it’s as if God said, “Alright, this debate is tired. I am spirit, but I made flesh, and I will show my creatures what it looks like to get it right once and for all!”

If someone had approached the incarnate God and asked outright, “Which is more important, evangelism or social action?”, I’m afraid Jesus would have laughed. A good Hebrew wouldn’t have asked the question to begin with, knowing that a right understanding of God issues forth in a right relationship, with all attendant rituals and lifestyle.

But in a sense, Jesus did answer that very question. Somebody asked him which one of the commandments was the most important. And Jesus’ answer was very clear: “There are two … love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul … and love your neighbor as yourself. That says it all. Enough said.”

End of debate, don’t you think?

If you insist on making a distinction, evangelism and social action are equally important. In fact, they may be the very same thing. What really is the difference between “loving God” and “loving others as yourself”? Can you really cite a significant difference between those two things? Is it possible not to feed a hungry person if you really love God? Is it possible to visit a prisoner and not love God by that very action? Let’s not quibble over semantics here; Jesus said to love – that is the essence of being a Christian.

And Jesus showed that it was possible to love in this earthly life.

Let me put it this way:

God took a shape, cast a shadow, occupied space, spent time. He did this because there was no other way to become a human.

God became flesh, blood, bones, muscles, saliva, spit, moods, hormones. He did this to show that these things are not evil, bad, useless, or unimportant.

God became compassionate, healing, loving, caring, forgiving. He did this to show that these qualities are not impossible. They can be lived by human beings … because it has been done by a real human being. It is in the realm of possibility. It is a potentiality for you and for me!

God acted in such a way that all of us can have a tender relationship with him. We can know our Creator. We can have the assurance of a presence that is always loving and forgiving.

Missionaries are supposed to do nothing but live that good news.