Monday, February 20, 2012

meeting other missionaries

Perhaps early in this new term with Mennonite Mission Network, I'm being told to learn something from other "resident aliens" in South Africa.  That is, I've encountered two separate pastors or missionaries recently from other African countries from whom I've learned something of the challenges of ministry.  I'll restrict my comments below to one of the two persons of whom I speak.

I met an African missionary who is going about the city doing evangelism--praying with people, preaching to people, "saving souls", in his words.  He comes, quite predictably, out of the Charismatic/New Pentecostal stream of Christianity which is so prevalent in this part of the world.

I find myself challenged simply by listening to the details of his story.

First, the predicament of his missionary situation:  The missionary is married with children, but he has left his family behind in his home country to be here.  How different that is from my missionary situation.  Our senders do not ask such a thing of us and, indeed, I cannot imagine being here--I would not be here--without my family.  They are the source of my strength and sanity, and I theirs.  I ask, is that what God asks of us?  Is this what Jesus meant when he talked about forsaking "wife and children" among others for the sake of the gospel?  I recently made some peace with that text, but encounters with persons such as this missionary force me at least to ask the question.

Second, the method of his missionary practice:  He calls himself a "missionary" which is self-evidently to him about doing primary evangelistic work, in his words, "saving souls".  He looks for an opening in his walks around town, perhaps identifying a "sick person" or a youth who is smoking.  Those conditions bespeak some need in the person which the missionary then addresses by praying for the person and asking them if they want to "receive Christ".  The missionary is full of stories about "miracles" which have occurred at his hands, of people being slain in the spirit as he prays, of people with long-standing conditions being healed.  He speaks of receiving "a word of knowledge" when he preaches, a word divinely-given to address the particular needs of people listening without him having prior knowledge of their situation.  I ask, am I as open to encounters with strangers, to people I pass on the street?  Am I closing myself off from learning something new about myself and about God in such encounters with others?

Third, the urgency of his presence: I'm sure this man is convinced he's living in the "last days".  He said so when we prayed together in my office.  I think it is in part that conviction that drives him on to seek the salvation of people.  Do I expect that God is about to do anything new in history, let alone bring about the redemption of the whole creation?

So if I ask such questions of myself, I still have some other questions.

What is the goal of the missionary's "soul-saving" mission?  He does speak of "gathering the souls he's saved", but this is in order for him to more easily "monitor" them on an individual basis.  I ask the question, "Who will take over the work after you leave?"  He intimates that there would be others from his church who could come to lead a church.  As for him, he knows not how long he can stay here, since as an evangelist it would seem that his job is to impart the bare minimum amount of knowledge a person needs to get going and move on to the next location.

I feel that there is quite a large gap between what I believe I am here to do and what this man believes he is here to do.  I am here to engage people deeply in the scriptures, to help them to know and to find their lives within that broader story of God's people.  I am here to do discipleship.  I believe that the goal of discipleship, that salvation, is the community called the church which God has ordained as the here-and-now sign of his coming kingdom.  I believe that essential to the redemption of the creation is the capacity of the church to live out its calling as the people of God's peace in the midst of the world.  I am trying to form those peace-minded disciples of Christ in my work.  Yet something about my encounter with this missionary seems to call that very approach into question.  I suspect that for him my approach must feel too long-term, possibly too structural, perhaps not urgent enough, since the "present form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor 7:31).  I would reason rather that, since we "know neither the day or the hour" (Mk 13:32), we might as well settle in for the long-haul and do the kind of thorough discipleship that I understand Jesus to have been about in the gospels.  I might characterize the gap I perceive as having as one's goal the saving of the individual versus having as one's goal the creation of a people.  This is not to say that the two are opposed; indeed, the salvation of individuals makes up the formation of community.  Still, I sense a basic difference in orientation.  The church is central, not peripheral, to my understanding of salvation.

That question aside, I sign off with one final challenge for me.

Even if I could reason myself into believing that I am the one who, as above, articulates the authentic "Anabaptist vision", I am hounded by the suspicion that my friend resembles the sixteenth-century Anabaptists more than I resemble them (I understand that being "like the Anabaptists" is not the goal--nonetheless I do believe in the vision).  Many of them were also convinced of the imminent end.  They also went around preaching and baptizing, probably in a fashion that would seem too haphazard to our modern, "settled," western Christian sensibilities.

-Joe

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