Christianity is an inherently missionary faith. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the last word of the resurrected Lord to his disciples was this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
The twentieth century has witnessed the greatest numerical expansion of Christianity in two millennia. And yet, with 1.5 billion Christians in the world, the missionary enterprise is hardly keeping pace with population growth. At least two sectors of Christian leadership, Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant, are determined that the next century will be marked by a dramatic resurgence of missionary endeavor.
At the end of January, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (Mission of the Redeemer). The document received slight attention in the general media—and, indeed, in the Catholic press—but it could turn out to be the most important encyclical of this pontificate. “The mission of Christ the redeemer, which is entrusted to the church, is still very far from completion,” declared the pope. “As the second millennium after Christ’s coming draws to an end, an overall view of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning and that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service.” John Paul underscores that concern for missions is a barometer of the church’s health. “In the church’s history, missionary drive has always been a sign of vitality, just as its lessening is a sign of a crisis of faith.”
Whatever their other differences with the pope, nobody agrees with him more fully on this score than evangelical Protestants. While the number of evangelicals (including fundamentalists) does not begin to match the 900 million Catholics in the world, their ranks are rapidly increasing—sometimes, as in Latin America, at the expense of Catholics. Thousands of evangelicals recently gathered in Urbana, Illinois, to plan and launch by the end of the millennium nothing less than the evangelization of the world. Missiologists pointed to signs that we are witnessing the initial stages of a worldwide movement of unprecedented dimensions.
It is reported that 3,500 new churches are opened every week. In China 28,000 people convert to Christianity each day. In Africa it is 20,000 per day. South Korea is now 30 percent Christian, and Indonesia, officially Islamic, is 25 percent Christian. New strategies are being employed for the “re-Christianization” of Western Europe, and in Central and Eastern Europe missionaries cannot keep up with the demand for Bibles and Christian ministry. The crisis in the Gulf, some evangelicals claim, has opened new missionary opportunities in Islamic countries that brutally persecute non-Muslim “infidels.” The very upbeat picture offered at Urbana is only part of the world reality, for many evangelicals equate “Christian” with evangelical Protestant. When the Roman Catholic missionary enterprise is included, the renewed assertiveness of Christianity on the world scene is even more impressive.
While undoubtedly testifying to the vitality of the church, that missionary assertiveness is a puzzle and scandal to many non-Christians. Many view it as a threat both to civil peace and interreligious understanding. They are joined by the churches of liberal Protestantism that have, for the most part, “outgrown” the missionary impulse. These churches have long since replaced a devotion to “missions” with support for a “holistic mission” in which social transformation takes priority over what, they now remember with embarrassment, they once called winning souls for Christ. Not surprisingly, these are the churches that, while still possessing considerable status and resources in the West, constitute a fast-declining and dispirited minority in world Christianity.
Secularists are puzzled and scandalized by the resurgent Christian mission because they were miseducated to believe that this is not the way history would turn out. It has been a secular dogma that, as people became more enlightened, religion would either wither away or be limited to what people do in the confines of their solitude. A remarkable portion of our cultural elites is still in thrall to that dogma. Such people are sincerely offended by the missionary claim that some religions are true and others false. They reflexively associate such claims with fanaticism and the wars of religion that in earlier centuries almost destroyed civil society. They tend to be blind to the fact that the massively destructive fanaticisms of this century, notably Nazism and Communism, were explicitly and adamantly anti-Christian in character.
Far from being fanatical or coercive, the Christian mission is essential to civil peace. That, at least, is the argument of John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio. As he has on many previous occasions, the pope contends that respect for the person, and especially respect for freedom of conscience, is the bedrock of human rights and democratic governance. Such respect, says John Paul, is itself grounded in the Christian message of man made in the image of God and destined for communion with God through Jesus Christ.
Unlike many evangelicals and most fundamentalists, Catholics do not believe that non-Christians are necessarily lost eternally. The Catholic teaching is captured in the phrase, anima naturaliter Christiania: the human spirit is naturally Christian. As grace builds on nature, so grace builds on whatever truth, including religious truth, non-Christians may possess. As John Paul wrote in the first encyclical of his pontificate, “Christ the redeemer fully reveals man to himself. The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly must draw near to Christ. The redemption that took place through the cross has definitively restored to man his dignity and given back meaning to his life in the world.”
In the present encyclical, John Paul is writing, in part, against “progressive” Roman Catholic theologians who have followed the lead of liberal Protestantism in vitiating the missionary mandate by adopting the “pluralistic” argument that all religions are more or less equal. The pope contends for an authentic pluralism that calls for intense engagement between Christians and non-Christians on the assumption that our deepest differences make all the difference in this world and the next. Nonetheless, whether in the Catholic form of fulfillment or in the evangelical form of a more confrontational either/or, the Christian missionary proposition cannot help but be troubling to people of other religions or none. The most pressing questions are raised with respect to Judaism and Islam.
Jews who have thought religiously about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity generally understand the inherently missionary nature of the latter. Observant Jews have noted that it is typically more secularized Jews who demand that Christians abandon their distinctive claims and acknowledge that Judaism is “equally true.” That demand, they note, is driven less by devotion to the truth of Judaism than by indifference or hostility to any religious claims to truth. Believing Jews, on the other hand, recognize that there are critical differences between Judaism and Christianity that will not be resolved short of the Messianic Age. While believing Jew and believing Christian have a common faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and while they have a common and frequently troubled border of historical experience, and while they have a common horizon of eschatological hope, both understand that the inescapable difference is over what to make of Jesus, whom Christians call the Christ.
Moreover, in the American situation many thoughtful Jews recognize that they, too, have a social stake, if not a religious stake, in the vitality of Christianity. (Witness the remarkable symposium, “Judaism and American Public Life” in the March 1990 issue.) There can be no doubt, however, that if Christians think that vital Christianity requires Christian mission, including Christian mission to Jews, that poses a problem for Jews. The appropriate response to the problem, our colleague Rabbi David Novak and others have urged, is not for Jews to demand that Christians stop being vitally Christian. The appropriate response is for Jews to become more vitally Jewish, to ground themselves more firmly in the belief and observance that make possible and necessary the Jewish-Christian encounter until the End Time.
Islam is something else. One of the most unusual features of the Gulf crisis is that Americans were, with self-consciously moral intention, coming to the aid of countries that are militantly contemptuous of the religion and morality of most Americans. Oddly enough, among Arab countries, Iraq was the exception in its tolerance of Christianity. In Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Christian evangelizing is legally prohibited. In much of the Arab world, it is a capital crime for a Muslim to become a Christian. In Egypt and elsewhere, Muslims who convert are jailed, fined, or, in many cases, simply “disappear.” Evangelicals who believe that new alignments following the Gulf war will begin to open up missionary opportunities call these nations “creative access countries.” Despite fierce persecution, they report that there are growing Christian undergrounds in these officially Muslim countries.
In Redemptoris Missio, the pope does not mention Islam by name, but the message is unmistakable: “On her part, the church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom, but rather promotes it. The church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience. To those who for various reasons oppose missionary activity, the church repeats: Open the doors to Christ!” It seems doubtful that the West’s military allies among the Arab nations will open their doors to the influence of Christian persuasion any time soon.
And yet, the Gulf war may have set in motion basic changes that will affect also the future of Christianity in the worlds of Islam. Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations were at first exceedingly nervous about permitting the military forces of the infidels on their sacred land. In the fall of 1990 there were embarrassing contentions over public worship by Christians and Jews, and U.S. chaplains were cautioned to hide the religious insignia on their uniforms. At least for the time it took to defeat Iraq, the Arab host countries became more religiously tolerant after a while. In addition, the myth of Arab nationalism, driven by Islamic passions, was dealt a severe blow by the war. Arabs were divided not only politically and militarily, but also religiously, with the most prestigious religious authorities endorsing cooperation with the victorious allied forces.
While those religious authorities cannot be expected to welcome the Christian mission, the painful ambivalence of Islamic culture toward the West has undoubtedly been intensified. The pressure to move toward democracy—which of necessity includes religious freedom—will likely increase in the years ahead. Secularist theories to the contrary, modern democratic governance is an achievement of the Christian West—with all the ambiguity attending the phrase “Christian West.” It is premised upon the limitation of state power by belief in the prior and God-given dignity of the human person and the citizen’s allegiance to an Authority higher than the authority of the state. In the West, that belief made possible and necessary the institutionalized distinction of realms between the civil and spiritual (“separation of church and state”).
That distinction of realms has been abhorrent to Islam, which insists upon a “total system” that subsumes the religious, cultural, political, and economic under one authority. Increased interaction with the West may well insinuate democratic ideas into Islamic culture. Islamic religious authorities, as well as despotic Arab rulers, will certainly view this as a threat. At the same time, it is a challenge that could elicit from Islam an effort to find religious legitimations for democracy within its own tradition. V S. Naipaul has tellingly analyzed the ways in which Muslim societies have tried to take the economic and technological benefits of the West while rejecting the political and economic institutions that produce those benefits. Most of all, they reject the culture that undergirds those institutions. That could, to the possible benefit of Islam, change in the future.
William McNeill’s magisterial survey of world history is titled The Rise of the West. The rise of the West continues to be the story line of our time, and almost certainly well into the next millennium. Christianity began in the Middle East, and the majority of Christians today live in countries that are ordinarily thought to be non-Western. But wherever Christianity is projected in the world today, it is a Christianity that has been refracted through the experience of the West—an experience that Christianity has also shaped. Call it cultural imperialism or call it Providential purpose, such is the undeniable fact. Third Worldist ideologues in the Geneva-based World Council of Churches notwithstanding, the Christian mission today is, for the most part, defined by centers in the West—in Rome and in the energies of American evangelicalism.
The importance of respecting missionary initiatives by the “younger churches,” notably those in Africa and Asia, is emphatically underscored in documents such as Redemptoris Missio and evangelical gatherings such as that in Urbana. There is an understandable anxiety to downplay the “linkage” between the Christian message and Western culture. Certainly there is much in Western culture, especially in the popular culture now exported everywhere, that is incompatible with the Christian message. Certainly Christians in the West need to be challenged by the devotion and thought patterns of Christians in other cultures. And certainly the Christian gospel must never be identified uncritically with any cultural expression. The God to whom that gospel witnesses stands in transcendent judgment over all cultures. That being said—and said again and again—however, the story line of world history, driven in large part by the Christian mission, will likely continue to be the rise of the West. That reality will be, for better and for worse, the dominant factor in defining the third millennium.