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Missions Speaker Urges New Focus Away from Evangelism

Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
October 27, 1998

In an address to the October 1998 meeting of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), a Methodist seminary professor urged a new missions focus that de-emphasizes evangelism and personal conversion. Wesley Ariarajah's comments were warmly received by most of GBGM's assembled directors and staff.

But a few directors privately expressed "consternation" over his dismissal of missions evangelism. At least one director noted that Ariarajah's speech contradicted the first goal of GBGM's own formal missions statement, which is to "witness to Jesus Christ" to gain "an initial decision" for Christ.

A native of Sri Lanka and former official of the World Council of Churches, Ariarajah now teaches at Drew Theological School in New Jersey, which is one of United Methodism's official seminaries.

Ariarajah commended a "new understanding" of missions that includes four shifts away from the traditional "Protestant party line" that once cited "Jesus as the only way to salvation." The first shift is a move from exclusion, which emphasizes the centrality of Christ, to inclusion, which acknowledges the truth found in other religions.

The second shift is from the concept of "conversion" to the "process of healing." Instead of converting adherents of other faiths, Ariarajah suggested showing that God can heal people wherever they are. The third shift involves moving from a majority to a minority mentality. Our goal, as the church, should not necessarily be to convert most people to Christ.

And the fourth shift de-emphasizes doctrine in favor of "spirituality." Young people, he claimed, do not want to confine their religiosity to the church's rigid beliefs. Ariarajah approvingly noted that Hindus see salvation as a lifelong process that moves toward total union with God.

"Other people [non-Christians] pray and have spirituality," he said. "God is a god of all nations. All life is within God. This is a firm, clear biblical view." Ariarajah said he realized the classical missionary movement had "a fear of...universalism [the belief that all people are saved] and syncretism [the believe that all religions are true]."

He described Christians in his native Sri Lanka as believing that all Sri Lankans should accept Christ. But the church there comprises less than seven percent of the population, and converting the whole nation is not realistic. The church must realize that "Buddhists and Hindus are part of God's work of reconciliation."

According to Ariarajah, the early church did not seek to convert the world. "Jesus talked about healing and wholeness," not conversion per se, he said. "There's not one place where Paul demands that the church go out to world mission. He wanted communities that witness to truth."

Ariarajah claimed the traditional missionary movement, although sincere, came to misinterpret its global role. Even the liberal idea of mission was once to "bring the whole world to Christ," he recalled. Missionaries once thought that the religions of the world must be "displaced by Christianity."

But Ariarajah insisted that the "whole creation will participate in the glory of God." The church's role is to witness to God's presence by not "worshipping mammon." We must show that God can heal, he said, rather than "dragging people from one faith community to another."

"The whole world should not perhaps become Christian," Ariarajah commented. "We should [instead] witness to the saving love of God that will bring all the world to perfection."

Ariarajah's speech was unusual, as it explicitly rejected the traditional concept of missions as evangelistic. Evangelicals within the United Methodist Church have for decades alleged that GBGM had rejected the need for personal salvation in favor of ministries of social justice. Typically, GBGM's defenders have denied the allegation. But Ariarajah's exposition drew public praise and little open criticism from the assembled directors and staff.

Typical was the response from GBGM's Evangelization and Church Growth Program committee, which declared that Ariarjah had "enriched our understanding of expectations and objectives for engaging in the mission of evangelization in the new century."

In contrast to Ariarjah, another speaker was openly criticized for her remarks. Minka Sprague, an Episcopal priest and seminary professor, led the Bible study for GBGM's meeting. She seemingly was in sync with GBGM's political and theological liberalism, at one point likening the recent murder of the young homosexual man in Wyoming to the killings of civil rights activists in the South during the 1960's.

Sprague then went on to comment on the admirable leadership qualities of George Washington. She regretted that he could not have opposed slavery more forcefully during his career but noted approvingly that Washington had freed all of his slaves in his will. Some directors afterwards expressed anger over Sprague's praise of the slave-owning Washington and her comment that racism will always exist. The Committee for the Elimination of Institutional Racism, in its report to GBGM, condemned Sprague's "racist statements."

GBGM leaders also leveled criticism at some of the Board's critics. In his opening address, Bishop Dan Solomon, who is GBGM's president, criticized United Methodist groups that "denigrate the work of the board" in mass-produced fundraising letters. "There is a better story to hear than some people are hearing," said Solomon, who lamented that some laity base all they know about GBGM upon such letters. "Stories whose appeal is alarm are fraught with harm," he concluded.

Yet Ariarajah's comments, along with another speaker, Eddie Lopez, are likely to confirm the suspicions of GBGM's critics. Lopez is an activist United Methodist pastor in New York City who spoke to GBGM about missions and prison ministry. He told of organizing a recent demonstration against "police brutality" in New York City. And he faulted New York's mayor and governor for stigmatizing street gangs for their own political gain. Lopez urged the United Methodist Church to lobby for a moratorium on the construction of new prisons.

Lopez also urged the church to embrace the decriminalization of drugs, which he claimed would not increase overall drug use. "Decriminalization would decrease violence in our streets," said Lopez. "Alcohol distributors don't need drive-by shootings," he told GBGM's directors.

Treasurer Steve Brimigion noted that he has received numerous inquiries about GBGM's large assets, which are close to $400 million. He said most agreed, after receiving his explanation, that the growth in GBGM's wealth was a "wonderful story." According to Brimigion, "Money in the right hands is the most powerful instrument of the people of God."

GBGM's directors approved a budget for 1999 of over $142 million, of which $16.4 million will be devoted to direct support for missionaries. The significant growth in GBGM's assets has resulted in plans to increase the number of short-term missionaries. For example, the Bishop W.T. Handy Young Adult Program, a new initiative, will recruit 800 new short-term missionaries at a cost of $4 million. The number of GBGM's full-time U.S. missionary force serving overseas remains unchanged at 282.

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