Americanizing or Christianizing?
The mandate for Christian missions comes from Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). I understand that mandate, but in the past, at least, I think many missionaries have been more interested in Americanizing than Christianizing. American Christian missionaries made far too many demands on the people they were trying to Christianize to be like themselves in manners, dress, and government. In James Michener’s novel Hawaii, eleven missionary families arrived in Hawaii to introduce the King, Queen, and the High Priests to Christianity. On the plus side, in addition to trying to convert the natives, they taught them to read and write, but they also forced them to adopt Western customs.
I think Christian missionaries should live among the people exhibiting their Christianity in their daily lives. If the people see something in their lives that is missing in their own lives they will ask about it, which gives the missionary permission to tell them about their faith.
A Brief Look at the History of Early Christian Missions
The earliest Christian mission was when Jesus sent some of his closest followers out – that is what “Apostle” means: to be sent out. So the first Apostles were the disciples, but there were soon other Apostles. At first, the Apostles’ mission was to their fellow Jews, but that soon expanded into the Gentile world.
Mark writes that shortly after Jesus called the twelve, he “began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (Mark 6:7)
Similarly, Matthew reported that Jesus summoned the twelve, “gave them authority over unclean spirits,” and sent them out to “cure every disease and every sickness.” (Matthew 10:1)
Luke is the only gospel writer who claims that Jesus appointed seventy “others” and sent them out in pairs to share the news about the coming of the kingdom of God. When they returned, they were joyous and claimed that “even the demons” submitted to them. (Luke 10:1-24)
The first famous Christian missionary was Paul whose missionary activity to the Greek and Roman world is reported in The Acts of the Apostles and in his letters to various early churches. After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he made three missionary journeys. He traveled for village to village, town to town, city to city. When he found a synagogue, he would preach there (remember, the “followers of the way” were not kicked out of the synagogues until long after Paul’s death). Those who heard and believed formed churches, most likely in homes until they outgrew the space. Aquila and Prisca hosted a church in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19), there was a church in “her house” in Nympha (Colossians 4:15), and a church in the house of Archippus (Philemon 1:2). It was in Antioch where the believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). We know there were churches in Judea, Galilee, Samaria (Acts 9:31), Syria, Cilicia (Acts 15:41), Cenchreae (Romans 16:1), at least seven churches in Asia (1 Corinthians 16:19, Revelation 1:4), Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8:1), Laodicea (Colossians 4:16, Revelation 1:11), Babylon (1 Peter 5:13), Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadephia (Revelation 1:11) and of course, in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2), Galatia (Galatians 1:2), Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:1) and Ephesus (Ephesians 1:1, Revelation 1:11) .
For Me the Missionary Circle Starts at Home
I’m probably too isolationist, but I think we should take care of home first. We should look after our immediate family, make certain that our church and church family are well taken care of, and then we should expand our circle to include the immediate community surrounding the church to see that everyone there is fed physically and spiritually. As the circle continues to expand, it will eventually include the entire world. I seriously doubt that most churches look at missions that way, however.
Why is it more important to send missionaries to foreign countries than to evangelize and do humanitarian work among the poor and disadvantaged in our own town, state, or country? Churches should improve the economic status, the literacy level, the education opportunities, and the health care that is available for their nearest neighbors. But that is not as glamorous as traveling to exotic locales.
The church should not exist to satisfy the demands of its consumers; it should exist to equip its members for God’s mission. Instead of recruiting customers or consumers for their religious programs, the church should recruit colleagues for God’s mission. They should feed the hungry, cloth the needy, help get people out of the dangerous ghettos, fight against senseless killings in the streets, strive for more racial understanding, help get people meaningful jobs so they can support themselves, and be more inclusive of the marginalized. If we do not do a better job of taking care of these things locally and nationally, the non-Christian religions of the world will soon be “missionizing” us.