Kamal Sidhu is a Senior Editor to SAC. Born into a Punjabi Christian family, Kamal has been blessed to know the Lord most of his life. While originally from Singapore, he has lived most of his nomadic life overseas and in 2004 he finished his undergraduate studies at Yale University with majors in history and economics - something which he is fond of telling others has furnished him with no real skills at all! He now lives and works in New York.
It is still intriguing to me how the subject of Christian missionary activity makes so many non-Christians uncomfortable, often to the point of remonstration. One mention of Christian conversion in company as diverse as a devout Hindu, a nominal Jew, or an enlightened secularist and you immediately get the feeling that this is a distasteful subject. The reaction is especially common amongst the post-colonial cultures of Asia, where missionary activity is associated with a crusading westernization that is out to undermine the virtues of indigenous culture. Are the critics right? Is the spreading of the gospel necessarily an arrogant enterprise that presumptuously proclaims to unbelievers, “we know better than you”?
I remember an awkward conversation I had with a good non-Christian friend of mine a few years ago. When I had mentioned my desire to one day go on a church mission trip, I was met with an uncomfortable silence. It quickly became clear that she did not approve of any activity that leads to someone’s conversion to Christianity; “sorry” is how she said she felt for all those people who were subjected to the proselytizing message of presumptuous Christians.
It is a familiar refrain that I have heard many times before and since. The argument goes something like this: People are doing just fine without the interference of Christian missionaries, so there’s no need to rock the boat with your talk of sin, heaven, hell and absolute truth. In fact, it is downright arrogant.
It is still intriguing to me how the subject of Christian missionary activity makes so many non-Christians uncomfortable, often to the point of remonstration. One mention of Christian conversion in company as diverse as a devout Hindu, a nominal Jew, or an enlightened secularist and you immediately get the feeling that this is a distasteful subject. The reaction is especially common amongst the post-colonial cultures of Asia, where missionary activity is associated with a crusading westernization that is out to undermine the virtues of indigenous culture.
Are the critics right? Is the spreading of the gospel necessarily an arrogant enterprise that presumptuously proclaims to unbelievers, “we know better than you”?
There are two reasons why I think the answer is a resounding no. The first has to do with a double standard embedded within the critics’ argument itself; the second with a complete misunderstanding of the gospel’s true message of grace and love.
It is easy to understand why non-Christians see evangelism in a negative light. Accepting the truth of the gospel necessarily means that the believer must renounce the truth of all other world views that are incompatible with it, be it other religious beliefs or a secular framework for understanding the world. It also means acknowledging the nature and consequence of sin and, therefore, the need for salvation through the cross and the cross alone.
Thus, to the outside observer, spreading the gospel basically looks like an intolerant exercise of telling others that they are wrong, that there is only one truth, and that failure to accept this truth has grave consequences. Proselytizing also looks like a disrespectful trampling on other cultural beliefs. As such, the nay-sayers see a demeaning quality in the work of missionaries.
The Belgian secular-humanist Dr. Koenraad Elst, a contemporary observer of Indian politics and society, sums up the anti-evangelical position this way: “It is painful to lose your faith, to find your beliefs untenable or disproven, to feel like you have been fooled for all those years… The Indian tribes can save themselves the trouble of out-growing Christianity by not becoming Christians in the first place.”
Peer at the assumptions behind this argument, however, and you will quickly realize that there is an unavoidable double standard propping it up. Saying that evangelism is intolerant, disrespectful and arrogant implies that it is unnecessary, that those who hear the gospel do not need to hear it in the first place. But is there not a great deal of presumption in believing such a thing?
When we say someone’s conversion is an unfortunate result of overzealous missionaries, are we not presuming far more about the individual’s needs, fears and hopes than we could possible know from afar? Do we not belittle the personal choice they make with their hearts and minds to follow Christ? Are we not basically writing off such converts as poor fools who just did not know better?
The critic that sees Christian evangelism as arrogant and presumptuous must necessarily indict themselves of those very things by the same standard they use against Christians. The anti-missionary stance fails to acknowledge the appeal that millions have seen in the gospel of Christ by means of their own reasoning and assumptions about life. Surely there are at least some who choose to become Christians because they have found something in it that resonates with them in a way nothing else they have seen or heard has or can. How, then, can it be wrong or a waste of time to tell these people about Christianity?
I remember one British missionary based in Uganda telling me about the time he spent among refugees fleeing the brutal oppression of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north of the country. He said that so many of these poor and downtrodden people embraced the gospel because its message of God’s redeeming love and justice held out a hope that nothing else could after the unspeakable injustices they had suffered at the hands of the wicked.
The idea that Christ will make everything new again and restore a just order was music to their ears. For the secular agnostic sitting in New York or the affluent Hindu in Bombay this may not make any sense given their life experience. But that does not mean the message of Christ’s good news has no value to anyone.
This leads me to the second reason why rejection of missionary activity is misguided: it misunderstands the true nature of the gospel’s. Central to the Christian message is God’s redeeming love made known in his sacrifice on the cross. Through faith in that redeeming sacrifice we are promised life both eternal and abundant. It is not just about a ticket to heaven but about a transformed life here and now.
Far from arrogance, acceptance of this message requires humility. Far from contempt or disrespect, spreading this message is an act of love. Far from deception, receiving this message of hope and love requires loving God in a way only possible by the exercise of one’s free will. And far from injustice or humiliation, the promise of the gospel is one of the glorification of even the meekest and poorest of our society.
“Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5). If this is truly the kind of message missionaries are spreading, suspicion and resentment are unfair responses to it.
But there is a message here for Christians as well: we need to be careful and sensitive to how we go about spreading this message. Unfortunately, the history of the church is not an enviable one; one cannot blame many cultures for their naturally negative attitude toward Christian missionaries given the heavy handed tactics they have been subjected to in the past.
Unfortunately, as great as the message of the gospel may be, “a stigma will always lick a dogma,” as the contemporary Christian thinker Ravi Zacharias correctly observed. Christians must carry the burden of this past, especially in a place like the Indian subcontinent. Peter’s words are especially relevant for the church today when he admonished: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15).
But of this there is no mistake: the answer is always worth giving, even if the question has not necessarily been asked. The privilege of giving it was paid for with precious blood.