The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Tempering Evangelism: Tsunami Missionaries should put Aid First

February 8, 2005, 1:29 am

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Dallas Morning News on Tuesday, Jan. 25

Zeal for converting non-Christians sets evangelical Christianity apart from other expressions of the Christian faith. You will find evangelicals all over the world, teaching, preaching and healing broken bodies and broken lives. They do much good.

But sometimes they go too far. We are dismayed at the furor ignited by members of Waco's Antioch Community Church, which sent a relief team into tsunami-stricken Sri Lanka. According to The New York Times, the Waco evangelicals have outraged Sri Lankan Christians and non-Christians by aggressively proselytizing among the country's Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. Some native pastors complain that the Texans are putting all the country's Christians in peril from militant Buddhist factions.

The Rev. Duleep Fernando, a Sri Lankan Methodist, told The Times that the Texans induced him to bring them into a refugee camp, pretending to be merely a humanitarian group. "We have told them this is not right, but now we don't have any control over them," the sadder-but-wiser pastor says now.

Aid to the poor and oppressed is a central tenet of Christianity, and missionary efforts over the centuries have often mixed material aid with subtle or not-so-subtle invitations to convert. It is difficult to draw a bright line between what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

But deception - hiding one's evangelical aims - is wrong. And so is imperiling the lives of Christians who can't hop a plane bound for D/FW if non-Christian militants turn violent.

Even absent that, the internal damage to a society can be profound. "Soupers" in Ireland and "rice Christians" in Asia are some of the epithets that reflect the bitter resentment toward people who are perceived to have abandoned their historical faith in return for handouts from proselytizing sects.

That's why many Christian aid organizations today try to separate humanitarian efforts from evangelism outreach. But the Waco church explicitly rejects that strategy. One paralyzed Buddhist fisherman told The Times he believes the Waco team is trying to convert him, but that he is "in a helpless situation," and feels he has no choice but to submit to their ministrations. How can Christians be proud of that


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