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Christian Mission vs. Humanitarian Relief

Jesus said: you have ears; use them! Mark 4:9

Do we really want to listen to the world? The idea is that when we listen to what the world is saying we will be better able to communicate the Gospel. Now I know he does not represent the world, but I wonder whether we should be listening to Matthew Parris.

On Saturday, Dec. 27 last year he wrote the following in The Times: Before Christmas I returned after 45 years to the country I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi … travelling there refreshed a belief; one that I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a convinced atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa; sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts.

These alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

Under the headline As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God, Parris goes on to expand his theme. For him Christian missionary work is not the same as relief work. He admits that he would be far more comfortable if it were.

If Christians kept to healing the sick and teaching people to read and write this would keep his secularist outlook pacified. He even would allow that faith can be a strong motivation. But as he says, faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock.

During the article he speaks in a way that seems to be aware of certain dimensions of the reality of Christianity in Africa. For instance Africa is not one monolithic experience when it comes to the Christian faith. He was writing from a sub-Saharan experience of Church. It is very different north of the Sahara.

He seems to be aware of the Churches in Africa, but wants to lay the role of evangelism at the feet of the missionary. And his use of the word missionary is jarring, but made me wonder whether it still has life in it when he writes as he does.

But none of this should take away from his main point. This is that Christian mission should not mistake itself for a humanitarian relief agency. This is a disconcerting thought. Many Christians and churches act as if the Gospel is solely about what we can do to respond to the works of Jesus in Luke 4:16-23.

Jesus declares that the ancient prophecy of Isaiah was coming to life as he read it. The theme of his life would be one of service to the unwell, distressed, oppressed and impoverished.

This is what happened, but Jesus also had a message. It was one that spoke of freedom, the restoration of the divine in human life, the power of forgiveness and a place for us all in the purposes of God.

Matthew Parris remarks that he met no missionaries in Malawi, but he did meet some impressive African people who were strong Christians. He comments: It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work were unconnected with personal faith. But he could not.

For him Christianity’s teaching of a direct, personal two-way link between the individual and God was the cause. He saw this as a liberating antidote to the anxiety created by a tribal system that stifled the individual, arrested personal initiative and grinds down the individual spirit.

He is aware that this is contentious material. He is challenging the liberal consensus. In other words, the tribal system has intrinsic worth just because it is the established culture which fits the situation and is denied its true strength by the invasion of any outside system that has come in since.

I am left wondering whether he is championing Christian outreach or creating a parody to make a political point. We have to remember this is an article in The Times. However, I am also left with a question. If he is not against us, is he therefore for us?

Can a Christian make some sort of alliance with an atheist? For instance, I would be interested to listen to a public conversation between Matthew Parris and the new BMS World mission director, David Kerrigan. Would it justify a place at the Baptist Assembly? Or is that an occasion when we only want to listen to ourselves?

John Rackley is minister of Manvers Street Baptist Church in Bath, England. Used by permission of The Baptist Times.