Evangelistic Ambulance Chasing
I used to teach on this! I would train other Christians on the difference between having a witness and that of proselytizing. I talked about being sensitive to 'power dynamics', and how to avoid placing those who are uniquely vulnerable and dependent upon our Christian compassion in situations where they might feel compelled to embrace our faith out of fear that not doing so would jeopardize future assistance. I regularly tried to calm the fears of my non-Christian colleagues in social work that all we were interested in was the "free and mutually desired exchange of beliefs and values" and that we were not engaged for the purpose of proselytizing. If I might say so, I was really good at convincing myself and others that coercion never entered the picture when it came to our witness to the gospel.
The 'Missional opportunity'
But like so many other things that I have come to realize are pervasive in the con artist culture of the evangelical religion, deep down in side we all knew why we were reaching out with a meal and 'a cold cup of water' to those who were literally suffering from parched throats and empty stomachs. And that was so we can do it all 'in the name of Jesus'. Internally, there is language that is commonly used to describe this kind of strategic evangelism. My favorite would have to be the phrase, 'missional opportunity'. That sounds a lot better than the long-form, more technically accurate description of what we are really talking about here, which is leveraging the moment when people are experiencing some significant lacking or misfortune in order to use that heightened sense of need as a bridge into the all-sufficient arms of the church.
Let me share two examples. They both have to do with taking advantage of the unique needs and therefore evangelistic opportunities surrounding people on the move. If you really want to impress your evangelical friends, you can refer to this as 'diaspora missiology'.
The first example has noting to do with misfortune but rather the privileged opportunity that most middle and upper-class white Americans in particular have, and that is the ability to pick up and move to another community, usually a 'better' one. Even though this is viewed as a mostly positive transition, that doesn't mean it is not fraught with its own stresses and strains. In particular there is always a social need that people have when they move into a new community. New residents want to know who their new friends will be. Well you know what that sounds like? A missional opportunity! We used to talk about it when I served as a pastor. And lucky for us, we have the industry of religion to create a product that will help us to be there for our new neighbors! Here's an excerpt from Outreach Magazine:
Every year an estimated 45 million people move to a new home, many not knowing the community yet. With the New Mover Program from Outreach, your church can easily send an invitation to these families to join the caring and supportive community at your church. This unique program allows you to mail only to the carrier routes you want, send beautifully designed postcards twice a month to increase response rates and reach families that moved to your area up to six months ago.
OK, if this first example seems like silly, b-grade salesmanship, the second example is far more serious. As many of you are aware, my passion and career have focused on forcibly displaced peoples for the past seven plus years. The bulk of this time was with an evangelical relief organization. Me and my other colleagues did a lot of good work, and many of them continue to do so. But I am now grieved by the manner in which I spoke about the unique opportunity to witness to those who had been forced to embark on the extremely painful and uncertain journey of a refugee. I had three points in my sermons as to why a Christian should engage: 1) that our faith lineage shared a biblical legacy with those who had been forced to move (e.g. Israel's exile to Babylon), 2) that we had a biblical command to minister to 'the foreigner in our midst', and 3) we had a biblical mission to make 'disciples of all nations'. Like I said in the beginning, we all knew that this last point was the real motivation behind our acts of love. After all, what good is it to save a man's life only to lose their soul to the eternal flames of hell.
As one pastor said in a blog article on the International Mission Board's website...
If we truly believe that God is sovereign, then it should be clear that God is leading peoples from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other places to our collective doorstep. These refugees now live in a land where the gospel is freely proclaimed. Peoples previously inaccessible are now not only within our reach; they are our neighbors. In light of this reality, we need more churches to understand that “God turns even the tragedy of forced migration into the triumph of future salvation.”
a loaf of bread for the 'bread of life'
At various times in my previous life in evangelical Christianity, I volunteered at what is often called a 'rescue mission'. You will find these in just about every city and town in the United States. Some of these Christian ministries to the local homeless community make it a prerequisite to attend a church service before those who are hungry can receive a free meal. A few make it a requirement to participate in Bible studies if they want to enroll in recovery programs. Thankfully, there are a good number of evangelicals who find this practice shameful.
But many are unwilling to confront the more subtle but still subversive and often psychologically manipulative use of the 'missional opportunity'. I don't know. Perhaps this form of abuse is inevitable when any religious community is beholden to absolute claims impacting the eternal destiny of human souls. Most religions have proven that when the stakes are so high, they are willing to approve just about any means that will reach that end. All I know is that I cannot be party to it anymore. In contrast, faith is at its best when the sole motivation of compassion is rooted in an empathy that had it been I who was in the current shoes of my hurting neighbor, this is exactly how I would want to be loved.