Thursday, January 12, 2006

Eccentricities of Evangelicalism: Missions

As an evangelical, it's interesting to describe the work of missions to religious outsiders. Lots of people in this day are somewhat familiar with the fact that Christians try to tell other people what they're about. That's fairly well known by the culture at large. But many people are not familiar with the idea that people voluntarily (and passionately) pack up their belongings and hopes and dreams and move far away with the sole purpose of communicating the Christian faith. In a world where one's beliefs often fail to penetrate into even the most perfunctory acts of life, such impassioned action appears rather strange.

This would not have been so many years ago. For example, Catholics were sending out missionaries like crazy just a few hundred years ago. They went all over the place and were often the first Europeans of any stripe to discover the peoples of American regions. But Catholic missionary activity petered out. One hears very little of it today in the wake of global religious conferences where various religious groups agreed not to proselytize one another. The Mormons still send people to far away places, but they're not a major religious presence in America. No, it's the evangelicals who are most known for commissioning people to go far away to tell people about the faith we hold.

I can imagine that it's very odd for your average non-Christian to hear of this. First of all, it's a huge deal to Christians to do missions. Christians don't simply do them. They do them. They get all whipped up about it and have Missions Weeks and conferences (!) and all sorts of things about missions. They give money to the cause, lots of it, in the more conservative evangelical denominations. These aren't rich people doing this, for the most part. These are your average middle-class family people earmarking a significant chunk of their money to pay for the labor of another. For the missionaries, there's a whole system set up in which they function, with training school, field experience, the assemblage of a "team," and then, of course, the actual work done once the missionaries go out. Then, when they've served for a while, they come back on "furlough" and tell all their supporting churches about what they've done for the past few years. There's this whole self-contained system that your average American has never encountered that fuels missions.

Stranger than any other aspect, though, is the passion that fuels missions. Perfectly able and happy people trek off all over the globe to share their faith, and sometimes die for it. Yet they are not frightened by the prospect. They are happy to go. Many of them want to die if God desires it. They see it as gain. Clearly, there is something strange going on here. Something powerful works in evangelicals to produce this mindset, so antithetical to most any other perspective you find in the world, especially one charmed by the materialistic, self-driven, principleless gospel of postmodernism. Then again, what would you expect from evangelicals? We're an eccentric people.


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