When I pray for evangelism, I don’t pray that as many people as possible make a profession of faith at the end of an evangelistic event. That may seem weird, because the success of evangelism is often measured according to the number of people who pray to accept Christ.
However, the reality is most people who pray to receive Christ in an evangelistic meeting never join a church, don’t grow in the Lord, and perhaps were never converted to begin with. That’s not always true, but statistically, it’s a high percentage.
Christmas is a beloved holiday around the world and every December, Christians turn their attention to celebrating the miracle of the incarnation, namely that God chose to condescend into our world and be born as a human baby. It is truly a wondrous thing that the sovereign Lord of the universe would abase himself in this way for us and our salvation.
But in the early centuries of the church, this truth came was aggressively attacked. In the year 318, an elder in the church at Alexandria by the name of Arius popularized the idea that Jesus Christ was a created being inferior to God the Father. Arius maintained that Jesus, the Son of God, existed before all things and had a hand in the creation of the world together with God the Father. According to Arius, Jesus was a created being. Jesus had a beginning and thus was not eternal.
Though Arius readily affirmed that Jesus was truly human, he denied that God the Father and God the Son, namely Jesus Christ, were equal or were of the same substance. In other words, they were different beings. This heretical teaching spread through the Roman Empire and there were many who held to Arius’ false teaching on the nature of Jesus Christ, including the son of the Roman emperor Constantine.
As this teaching spread, Emperor Constantine became concerned about swelling conflict in the church and called a grand council of bishops to respond to Arius’ teaching. Were Jesus and the Father the same God or weren’t they? Because resolving conflict was a prime concern for Constantine, one option for the council at Nicea would have been to issue a statement that used broad, vague language which no one on either side of the issue could find objectionable. If they had chosen this route, all sides would have been able to save face and the substantial difference between the teaching of Arius and those who opposed him would have been covered over. Superficial peace and institutional harmony might have prevailed.
It is sometimes claimed that missionaries are imperialistic colonizers who arrogantly try to change other cultures and impose their own. There’s lots of misunderstanding, misinformation, and over-generalizations packed into those claims but the one I want to focus on in this article is the claim that missionaries try to change other cultures.
The assumption behind this claim is that all cultures, together with their values and norms, are equally valid and that all truth claims are relative. Therefore, Westerners who (supposedly) advocate for the superiority of their own culture(s) in other parts of the world are narrow-minded and arrogant. They have no right to tell other cultures what they should and should not do or value. Of course, this slam against missionaries is disingenuous because Western secularists have no problem promoting their own Western secular values, such as abortion and LGBT “rights”, in parts of the world that traditionally oppose such things. Even if they sometimes call evil good and vice versa, even they know that there are some things that are universally right and universally wrong. They see the value in promoting what they believe is good and right even in other cultural contexts where such values get an icy reception.
This brings us back to the charge that missionaries try to change other cultures. Undoubtedly, there are some ways in which missionaries have tried to change other cultures when they shouldn’t have. In the past, “Christianizing” and “civilizing” were often intertwined in the minds of many Western missionaries. But on some matters, the Bible is clear about what is right and what is wrong, and missionaries have opposed many wrongs in other cultures even though those practices represented embedded cultural values.
William Carey in early 19th century India opposed widow burning.
Missionaries in China opposed foot binding.
John Paton opposed wife beating in the South Pacific.
Here’s what Paton had to say about his attempt to change the local culture of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu):
“Leaving all consequences to the disposal of my Lord, l determined to make an unflinching stand against wife beating and widow strangling, feeling confident that even their natural conscience would be on my side, I accordingly pleaded with all who were in power to unite and put down these shocking and disgraceful customs. At length, ten Chiefs entered into an agreement not to allow any more beating of wives or strangling of widows, and to forbid all common labour on the Lord's Day; but alas, except for purposes of war or other wickedness, the influence of the Chiefs on Tanna was comparatively small. One Chief boldly declared, "If we did not beat our women, they would never work; they would not fear and obey us; but when we have beaten, and killed, and feasted on two or three, the rest are all very quiet and good for a long time to come!” I tried to show him how cruel it was, besides that it made them unable for work, and that kindness would have a much better effect; but he promptly assured me that Tannese women 'could not understand kindness.' For the sake of teaching by example, my Aneityumese teachers and I used to go a mile or two inland on the principal pathway, along with the teachers' wives, and there cutting and carrying home a heavy load of firewood for myself and each of the men, while we gave only a small burden to each of the women. Meeting many Tanna men by the way, I used to explain to them that this was how Christians helped and treated their wives and sisters, and then they loved their husbands and were strong to work at home; and that as men were made stronger, they were intended to bear the heavier burdens, and especially in all labours out of doors. Our habits and practices had thus as much to do as, perhaps more than, all our appeals, in leading them to glimpses of the life to which the Lord Jesus was calling them.” (excerpted from James Paton, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides, Christian Focus Publications: Ross-shire, 2009, p.70-71)
Other examples of missionaries trying to change culture could likely be given, including modern anecdotes about ending sex trafficking. But the examples above, including the “confession” by John Paton are sufficient to sustain the charge that missionaries do try to change other cultures. And sometimes that is a good thing.
There are lots challenges in missionary life and some of them are more tangible and easy to send out as a prayer request.
- Pray that our visas will be approved.
- Pray for for us to get over this sickness.
- Pray for our language study.
- Pray we’ll know what to say at the funeral of a new believer.
- Pray God will help us find a place to meet for worship.
- Pray for increased financial support.
Then there are less tangible or more sensitive challenges that are less likely to make regular appearances in a prayer letter.
- Family Issues
- Tensions with Co-workers
Amidst all of these challenges, I think one of the most difficult to pin down and to overcome is discouragement. When there is little to no progress in your ministry efforts, what should you do? What do you write in a prayer letter to prayer partners and financial supporters?
Aminta Arrington, Songs of the Lisu Hills: Practicing Christianity in Southwest China (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvannia State University Press, 2020).
reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
Readers familiar with mission history in East Asia may have heard of J.O. Fraser, the early twentieth century C.I.M. missionary who did pioneer evangelism among the Lisu people of southwest China. His story has been the subject of multiple biographies but many may not know what has become of Lisu Christianity since Fraser. In Songs of the Lisu Hills, Aminta Arrington skillfully fills this gap, recounting the history and development of Lisu Christianity from its early days to the present in a way that puts the Lisu Christians, and not Fraser and other missionaries, at the centre of the story. This book is not a mere history of Lisu Christianity, however, but also the reflective analysis of a participant-observer who weaves together first-hand accounts of modern Lisu Christians and their practices with academic analysis, setting the Lisu Christians in cultural, religious, linguistic, and political context.