Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Pablo Bordenave: Evangelization in Context: The Great Commission or the Great Omission?

Today's post is by Lic. Pablo Bordenave. Lic. Bordenave is Chaplain at Colegio Ward in Buenos Aires. It originally appeared (in Spanish) on the website of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina (IEMA) as part of a series organized by the Centro Metodista de Estudios Wesleyanos (CMEW). It appears here in translation with the author's permission and with the assistance of CMEW.

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” These words from the Gospel of Matthew that carry the title of “the Great Commission” point to one of the most discussed tasks within the Christian churches throughout the centuries. This topic is discussed so much that some have called those words “the great omission,” implying that it is the task that the church has forgotten.

David Bosch, author of the book Transforming Mission, says about this text of Matthew:

“It is inadmissible to lift these words out of Matthew’s Gospel, as it were, allow them a life of their own, and understand them without reference to the context in which they first appeared. Where this happens, the ‘Great Commission’ is easily degraded to a mere slogan, or used as a pretext for what we have in advance decided, perhaps unconsciously, it should mean. … One thing contemporary scholars are agreed upon, is that Matthew 28:18–20 has to be interpreted against the backdrop of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole and unless we keep this in mind we shall fail to understand it. No exegesis of the ‘Great Commission’ divorced from its moorings in this gospel can be valid.” (p. 57)

How good it would be if our ideas of evangelism/mission of the church had as a backdrop, that is, as a general context, the message of the gospel that became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth!

Juan Stam, a Latin American theologian, began an article on theology of evangelism entitled “God as a starting point for a theology of evangelism.” He said, “Where should evangelism start from? From heaven to arrive at the earth? That is what the title would seem to indicate. From the church to go out into the world? That would be another approach. Or from the world to then bring it to the gospel?”

Stam was looking to point out these perspectives, problematizing a little and showing the complexity of the theme of evangelization. These questions are enough to show at least that there is not a single “correct” way to evangelize, that this task can be assumed from different places or perspectives and that each of these different places have their own risks of distorting that message we are looking to transmit.

As you can see, the theme is fundamental.

If Jesus is our example both in works and in his humanity, the first thing we would have to say is that much of our failure to communicate the gospel in our Latin American contexts is largely due to our lack of dialogue with the culture, to our ignorance of it or worse still to the rejection of many historical and cultural traditions.

Jesus not only dialogued with the culture of his time, but he incarnated himself in full humanity to be able to establish that dialogue and that it may be fruitful. Not knowing our Latin American culture and intending to have a discourse more typical of other latitudes or past centuries is not having the person of Jesus as a backdrop.

Imitation of North American models

Stam says in his article, “It is necessary to highlight, in the nineteenth century, due to its projection in Latin America, the gigantic movement of ‘religious revivals’ with its emphasis on repentance and conversion and which was also characterized by its emotionalism and the mobilization of masses around a great evangelist. This is how names like James McGready, Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and today Billy Graham are remembered. It is not surprising that Latin American evangelicalism, born largely in the heat and thanks to the pioneering effort of the North American Church, has always fallen to the temptation of copying the same patterns, reducing ‘evangelism’ to a function that can be called mimetic: of imitation.”

Without a doubt, if those preachers did their job well in those times, it was surely because they understood their cultures and knew how to enter into dialogue with them. We do them little favor when we only seek to imitate them in form and content.

The good news that we have to communicate must be incarnated in the culture of our time and our land in order to bear the fruit of justice. For this reason, as Latin Americans we are called to our own path of incarnation with our cultures. Evangelism is proclamation, but it is also incarnation. For this, our participation in the life of our cultures is indispensable.

On the contrary, the fundamentalist theology that has spread throughout Latin America has managed to live and practice the evangelistic task in fundamental terms of separation between faith and culture.

In Wesley we find a deep link between good news and culture. His concept of good news, deep and radical, led him to fight against the “execrable villainy of slavery,” and also to venture into the economy, health, and medicine, and to criticize those who transformed these tools given by God for the well-being of God’s children into personal gain. For Wesley, just as the Roman Terence mentioned, “nothing human was alien to him,” and we can add, neither was the non-human: for Wesley, animals and the entire creation enter in dialogue with the Good News of salvation. For Wesley, evangelism (although he never used that term) was to open the space for an enriching and salvific dialogue between God and all of his creation. He never thought of the good news as something to be imposed, on the contrary, “Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love.” (Sermon 37, “The Nature of Enthusiasm).

The Uruguayan pastor Emilio Castro said, “The biggest obstacle to evangelism is the Church worried about its own existence. It would be amusing, if it were not pathetic, to see entire denominations preoccupied with completely secondary questions of form or doctrine…while revolutionary ferment rages in the streets and fields of Latin America.”

The good news of Jesus always seeks the horizons, not confinements. It is an encounter, not a hunt for candidates to be “converted.” And if the church remains self-absorbed and silent on this, “the stones will cry out.” It is time to find new questions to answer. That would be a promising start for a new church in Latin America.

Questions for reflection

  1. If to evangelize you have to enter into dialogue with culture as Jesus did, what keys do you think the text of Phil 2: 5-11 gives us to understand Jesus' relationship with human culture?
  2. How do you organize an evangelistic journey in light of these words of Wesley: “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you (just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy men's lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love” (Sermon 37)?
  3. If the context of the Great Commission should be the rest of the gospel of Matthew, look for characteristics to carry this good news today in the following three passages:
    Matt. 5: 1-12
    Matt 12: 1-8
    Matt 15: 21-28

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