Is missionary work valid today?
Criticism is aimed at missionaries over the validity of their work. Some of this criticism has been, and in some cases remains, sadly justified. Other criticism comes from a stereotypical image of missionaries in popular culture that has distorted the perception of what they actually are and do. The main two criticisms I meet are:
•It is wrong to convert people of other religions.
•Missionaries destroy culture.
I believe that missionary work, when pursued as Messiah intended, is not only valid today, but has enormous importance. I believe that the message and mission of Messiaht is still good news for all people. There is still enormous need both for the proclamation of the good news of salvation and for the relief from suffering, poverty, and injustice, which is part of the missionary calling of the Yeshua’s followers movement.
Just as before today, Judaism and jews are multicultural. It is strongest and most vibrant in Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia. Those living in North America (USA or Canada big cosmopolitan cities such as New York , California or Toronto, Vancouver) are living proof as well as those who lived in Babilonia in ancient times. But it exists in every nation on earth, and missionaries go from every nation to every nation. Missionary work is not a western endeavour, but it is the work of the whole movement to bring blessing in all senses to the whole world.
Nevertheless, I think it is helpful, both for congregations, and for its critics, to examine these criticisms.
Everyone has the basic human right to decide for themselves the religion that they believe and practice. Conversion – or its prevention – by coercion, whether at the point of a sword, by economic bribe, or through emotional manipulation removes the free choice of the individual and must be morally wrong. There would be cause for genuine concern if, as seems to be sometimes imagined, people are forced to convert against their free will. Missionary work thankfully does not involve the forced conversions fondly imagined in some literature. Indeed, from the perspective of the Scriptures, it is the choice of the individual freely made, not adherence to a particular religious structure, which brings the person standing with God. A forced conversion is no conversion.
However, inasmuch as the work of the congregation and missionaries involves a call to conversion, it should remain that – a proclamation and demonstration of the story and message of forgiveness found in the Scriputes and Messiah’s teaching, accompanied by a call to respond by choosing to follow God in repentance and faith. As the congregation that is a path, we must be diligent in stripping our gospel of manipulative trappings.
At the same time, to oppose missionaries the right to call people to conversion is likwise to undermine people’s freedom of choice, in denying them the right to decide for themselves which religion or faith they may follow. It is a paternalism that says “we know what is best for you.” This is a position taken primarily by atheistic westerners effectively denying others the right to choose what they themselves have rejected, and by political or religious rulers who feel threatened by dissent in society.
Linked to this, I sometimes hear the idea that “Jews cannot understand Messiah’s message.” This is at best an ignorant, and at worst a racist perspective. In fact, most Jewish people have a much better grasp of the concepts behind the story and message of the gospel than most supposedly learned westerners and so called christians. The concepts of God, judgement, salvation, sacrifice, etc are familiar food to most of the Jewish world. I do encourage readers to learn more about the Siddur, rabbinic thought, or Jewish theology.
Even today,65% of the Jewish world remains firmly unreligious ( or secular). Belief in God remains, worldwide, the norm. There is a big difference in how they express their faith by either being atheist , non observant Jews to being very observant Jews. Secular materialism, which seeks to over-run the world through a combination of globalisation and economic force is – in spite of its association with the richest and most powerful nations on earth – actually a minority and very recent faith. In fact, Jewish people everywhere in the world enjoy talking about God and religion. Today, the “Christian church” is majority non-western. And Christianity worldwide is growing at a faster rate than world population, but there are others who practice Judaism or Islam , etc which seems to indicate that people still want to hear about God!
The culture of any individual or society should be respected. Culture gives the person a sense of shared identity, belonging and values. But any culture is neither perfect nor unchanging. Respect for the individual and community will, while honouring the culture, seek both to facilitate individual and communal development in a way that positively impacts the culture also.
Firstly, culture is not static. It is always changing. It is only a question of how it changes and by what influence. Radio and commerce are at least two media that ensure that almost no place remains isolated from the outside world. Today the internet is of marvelous help. The most powerful and missionary forces of change are of course those of globalisation and it’s not Scripture-based: Coca Cola, Cigarettes, the music and film industries etc, and the values they bring are questionable. These have no regard or interest in traditional culture or its development. Missionaries on the other hand spend years learning the language, and understanding the culture. It is both amusing and galling to meet those who take pride in calling themselves “travellers, not tourists,” who turn up in rural Brazilian, Asian African or Islamic markets dressed in t-shirts and shorts, with no sensibility of either the offence or impression given, who then lecture the missionary on his insensitivity to local culture. Traditional cultures are being changed – by “travellers” as much as by any other – and people should have the right to choose how that happens. Part of the missionary role is to bring positive alternatives for the development of traditional culture, other than the default option of western consumerism. This is the exact same thing if you are in “Jewish Mission”. Yeshua didn’t come to change the Torah. Mattityahu 5:17,18 “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in NO wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Secondly, culture is not perfect. Ancient cultures were adapted to their context but, as with modern cultures, have good elements (such as hospitality, unique artistic expression…) as well as bad (such as fear of evil spirits, ungodly sacrifices, idols, female circumcision, etc…). The idealisation of traditional cultures as some kind of utopia is false. Any one of us wants our culture to change – for the better. For all the talk of how good ancient cultures were, few want to go back to them – we all want progress. A sensitive cultural approach to mission will seek to accentuate the positive, accommodate the neutral, and reject the negative elements of culture, and this requires sensitivity and discernment.
Biblical Judaism today is not a western religion. It is Middle Eastern in origin, but it can be practice in every country in the world. It is strongest in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and parts of Asia, where it continues to grow, not through the influence or distortions of western (christians) missionaries, but through local communities of followers of the Yeshua’s Movement. For instance missionaries are going from Europe to Africa as well as the other way around, missionaries are going from North America to Latin America or the other way around and this is healthy, and much-needed. We as the congregation in the west are still faced with this vital challenge to recognise that our western forms of Judaism are at best culturally-bound when Middle East and ancient Israel custom and traditions are learned, and at worst compromised. We need to recognise the validity of other cultures and different cultural expressions of faith in Messiah’s teaching. While holding fast to the good news of the kingdom of God, we need to allow Messiah’s teaching and followers to bring Judaism into local culture in positive light. What is not needed is the exporting of the worst of western individualist, consumerist, and success-orientated culture with its accompanying depression, suicide, isolation, community breakdown, self-indulgence, and injustice. This is not Scripture or Tannak-based!
The gospel or Good News both affirms and challenges every culture. It is not tied to western forms of expression or practice. There are of course stories of missionaries who have brought unhelpful change. Yet for every one of those there are 10 who are working quietly within the culture, bringing positive influence. Local congregations are developing all over the world, with local leadership, where people are meeting God and retaining what is worth of their cultural identity and Torah living standards, discovering ways of worshipping the One True God and following Messiah’s teaching that are genuinely biblical, and yet uniquely cultural, even using local music, architecture, language, and knowledge frameworks. Where this happens, the congregation is a catalyst for positive change – bringing the positive impact of the gospel -Good News- healing, forgiveness, freedom – within the traditional cultural framework.