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Q & R: Reaching the American Evangelical Community for Christ

Here's the Q:

Hey Brian! Hope you're doing well. I had a question that a friend of mine and I continue to wrestle with balancing. Over the last two years we've been working with some people in India through an non-profit we've started here in the United States. The people we work with are Christians who were born and raised in Kolkata and have a strong heart for the people of the city. Our work together includes education, vocational training, nutrition, medical assistance, and spiritual care. We have schools and churches in different areas in and around the city. The requirement for the places in which we work is that there must not be any other organization connected to or helping those people. As you can imagine they are very poor and many live in terrible slum conditions. Our new journey has us thinking very hard about poverty. What are the systemic causes and contributors, and what are the solutions? We're discovering that the causes are complicated and the solutions are long suffering. For us the journey began out of a rediscovery of what Jesus says about the poor and our responsibility to community. There is no question as to what he requires us to do, even though it can be politically, culturally, and religiously subversive.

Through this process we've had to reevaluate what the "Gospel" and the "Kingdom of God" actually are. (You're writing has been incredibly helpful on that topic.) As you're aware, much Christian mission work these days is focused on getting to heaven or escaping from this earth. Through our prosthelytizing we end up exporting our culture, economics, and distorted values in addition to our religion. We have a desire against this. We want to bring heaven here to earth, to melt down the spiritual dualism into a community of kingdom focused peace makers.

Here is our problem. In our current religious paradigm that's a very hard sell to evangelical churches and individuals. They want to hear that you're "preaching the gospel" as they understand it. There is little concern or respect for the cultural and religious intricacies of the host people. Meanwhile, they continue to dwell in hopelessness and sadness as Jesus' words echo in our ears. We forget that we were not commanded to "love in order to convert", but just to "love". Only in that unconditional love and compassion does Jesus' new kingdom explode.

What advice do have for people like us who want to help the poor and spread the love of Jesus in the right ways, while still engaging people in the American evangelical community?

We want to truly communicate our message and our vision but we don't want to alienate ourselves from goodhearted people who have a less complete understanding of the gospel. As my partner says, "You can tell someone you're preaching the gospel and they'll never ask you if you're feeding the poor. But you can tell someone you're feeding the poor and the first thing they'll ask is if you're preaching the gospel." It's hard to tell someone you're main priority is not to build a church building.

It seems to me most of this boils down to what people believe the Kingdom of God is. We believe it's more than a ticket off this planet to heaven, but rather that it is a rhythm of compassion that participates in everyone's humanity, even the least of these, and binds everyone together through the love of the Father. Unfortunately that's a hard thing to convince most Christians of.

I apologize for the length. Any writing, wisdom, and advice would be cherished.

Here's the R:
I can't tell you how many Christian workers have asked me a version of this question. American Christians have faults, to be sure, but we have many wonderful qualities, and generosity is one of them. We provide a lot of money for important work around the world - but many of us have been trained to want to measure success only in terms of "souls saved" or "churches planted," and show too little interest in the well-being of human beings in the totality of their lives. Too many of us have mixed our Christian faith with a corporate mentality that wants "bang for the buck" in terms of people who have "said the sinner's prayer," etc. How many souls per dollar? How many churches per thousand dollars? When you express it in that monetized way, I know, it's kind of sickening ... but I've heard this sort of talk too often in my life, and even when it's not said overtly, it's often a covert motivation.

I think of one retired missionary who told me that during his years of service, all the "missionary numbers" were way up - "souls saved," churches planted, # of Christian schools and radio-tv stations, etc. etc. "By all the measures we measured," he said, "our work was a great success." But, he said, "every indicator of human well-being is now at an all time low." In spite of all the "souls saved," crime and corruption were up. Health was down. Divorce and domestic abuse were up. Environmental health was down. Rape and HIV were up, etc., etc. But people didn't want to hear about that. They just wanted the "missionary numbers." He was very disillusioned, as you can imagine.

A lot of mission workers live in the tension of trying to stretch and educate their donors - while trying not to alienate them. Some grit their teeth and play the game - telling the donors what they want to hear and avoiding stretching them much if at all.

So here's my advice. It's not easy or quick. But I think you need to work hard to develop a donor base that you painstakingly educate. Be respectful of their traditional understanding - they don't believe what they believe because they're mean or heartless, but simply because that's all they've been taught and that's all they've seen or heard. Tell stories. Explain why you do what you do. You'll have to be "bilingual" - speaking language that people in general will understand, and speaking the language of more traditional folks. Maybe you can recommend books that will stretch people. Some people will leave you. But that's sometimes the price of honesty.

Key to this will be telling stories - not simply of "souls saved," but of people and communities whose lives in their totality have been helped. And tell your own stories - what you're seeing, learning, etc. Explain how this flows from your love for Christ. Explain how you feel the Spirit moving you to serve people in the totality of their lives. Explain how the Bible has taught you to practice "integral mission."

And one other piece of advice - along with bringing along your more traditional donors, focus on recruiting younger donors and educating them and bringing them along with you for the long haul. It's slower in some ways, but essential in the long run. None of this is easy, but as you know, if you want to help folks in India, it will involve winning the confidence of donors in the US and Canada, and then educating them. That's not a distraction from your ministry. It's part of your ministry. God bless you in it!