Titus Presler, former principal of Edwardes College in Pakistan and Visiting Researcher with Boston University’s Center for Global Christianity and Mission, praises a column by Kwame Appiah in The New York Times Magazine:
A remarkably balanced view of evangelism, Christian mission and the relationship between the two was offered by the regular ‘Ethicist’ columnist Kwame Appiah in the Dec. 23 edition of the New York Times Magazine in response to an inquirer concerned about her grandniece’s upcoming evangelistic mission trip to Nepal. It is unusual to see such a nuanced view of Christian mission in a secular venue.
For those unfamiliar with this NYT feature, ‘The Ethicist’ appears weekly in the Magazine, with the columnist responding to readers’ questions about various ethical dilemmas in their lives. The columnist changes from time to time, and the current columnist, Kwame Appiah, formerly of Princeton, is now professor of philosophy at New York University. Here’s the text of the question about evangelism, along with Appiah’s response:
My grandniece posted on Facebook that she is trying to raise money so that she can go on a trip to Nepal with other high-school students from her Christian school to “evangelize the unreached people” of South Asia. My husband and I can easily afford to contribute to her fund-raising effort, but I am opposed to evangelizing. I fully support mission trips when the participants travel to needy communities to provide assistance, but not when the object of the trip is to convert people to Christianity. I believe that we should honor — and work to understand — the religions and spiritual traditions in South Asia, not try to change them. Is there a way to support her without supporting the underlying reason for the trip?
Missionaries will consider almost everyone in Nepal “unreached,” even though most Nepalis have a mobile phone. So your grandniece isn’t arriving to some premodern redoubt. Nor is she going to coerce or bribe or threaten people into changing, or pretending to change, their religion. She’s aiming to explain to them why she thinks Christianity is the true faith. It’ll be up to them to decide whether they agree with her. To assume that they can’t be relied on to do so in the light of their own best judgments is to risk condescension.
Evangelizing Christians played a role in the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, contravening settled traditions in both Britain and Africa; in late-19th-century China, missionaries played a role in ending foot-binding. All that was indeed good news. More recently, in Uganda, a handful of American evangelical ministers evidently helped spur the passage of legislation that sought to drastically increase the penalties for homosexual acts. That was bad news. It’s useless to try to draw up a ledger sheet here of good and evil. The point is that God and the Devil are in the details.
… The letter writer expresses a negativity about evangelism that is not only characteristic of religious skeptics but also common today among Christians in ‘mainline’ denominations — Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans. She rightly declares that one should honor and seek to understand other religious traditions, in this case those of south Asia. Yet it is clear that she believes evangelism should be out of bounds, even after seeking to understand other religious convictions and probably even if the evangelism is milder than when “when the object of the trip is to convert people to Christianity.” The letter writer expresses the equally common — and naïve — view that mission trips designed to render “assistance” — by which she probably means education, healthcare, poverty alleviation, clean water and so on — are immune from criticism. In fact, missioners often undertake such efforts with neo-colonial assumptions that they know what people in the Two-Thirds World need and that they are uniquely qualified to organize efforts on their behalf.
… Appiah addresses the letter writer’s probable assumption that evangelism is inherently coercive when he assures her that her grandniece is not traveling in order “to coerce or bribe or threaten people into changing, or pretending to change, their religion” — which is the erroneous and distorted view of evangelism that many people have. Instead, he assures her that her grandniece is aiming to explain to them why she thinks Christianity is the true faith. That’s a good corrective.
Here’s a nuance I would add: Evangelism consists in simply bearing witness to what God has done in one’s life through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. In simpler terms, evangelism is telling one’s own story in light of God’s story.