The Doors Are Closing for the Gospel: A Call to Re-visit Our Theology of Missions and Strategies

“Hello. I am Bhasker.”
His neighbour responded, “Hello. I am Lenny.”
“Are you from_____?” (mentioning the destination)
“Yes, I am studying there.”
“Are you a Christian?”
“Which church do you go to?”
He mentioned the name of a church and further questioning revealed that he was Catholic.
“Do you read your Bible?”

The conversation followed along typical evangelistic lines for the rest of the journey. The talk could be heard several seats away; indeed, most of the co-passengers were able to hear. It was a late evening journey between two major cities in a foreign country. The bus was filled with people returning home after a busy day—most of whom wished to relax for the 2-hour ride. As the above conversation was loud, many of the passengers shot impatient glances their way.

Bhasker was a Christian. He wanted to get to know the person next to him, and since the conversation led to it, he was also presenting the gospel.

In the same bus a few seats ahead there was another Christian man sitting next to a woman. Both overheard the above conversation. As they neared the destination the woman gathered her belongings. The man looked at her and said, “Hello. Are you getting off at the next stop?” To which she responded, “And the next question will be…‘Do you read your Bible?’”

Why did the woman respond this way?

Obviously, she was annoyed by the other conversation, and since she had seen both men together earlier, her response was to preempt any further conversation. Such sensitivity toward the gospel and Christians can take the form of violent attacks and worse in many parts of the world. It certainly does in India, where both the men in the above conversation come from. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reports several incidents of violence against pastors and Christians nearly every week in nearly every part of India. But such sensitivity and antagonism toward Christianity and to the preaching of the gospel is not just an Indian phenomenon.

The anti-Christian wave we have witnessed in India in the last two decades is neither new to the Church in India nor to the Church at large. The Lord Jesus Christ himself and later his disciples made it very plain in their teachings and writings that opposition to the gospel will come (John 14:33; Acts 16; 2 Timothy 3:12). The subsequent history of the Church is a witness to it. While opposition to the gospel should not surprise us, there is an urgent need for Christians worldwide to introspect, investigate, and revisit our theology and our ministry strategies and practices. In many cases, “the doors are closed” not so much to the gospel, but to the way we preach that gospel. 

Below are thirteen areas which Christian leaders need to reinterpret and redefine before presenting the gospel:

  1. Examining the charges. There is an urgent need to examine if the charges leveled against Christians are genuine. For instance, in India, some of the charges raised are: forced conversions, mass conversions, conversions causing a cultural divide, inducements offered to converts, and the church as anti-national.
  2. Defining conversion. There is a need for a clearer definition of what conversion is. Does it mean breaking all ties with one’s family? Does it mean changing one’s name and adopting a Western or Hebrew/Greek (biblical) name as is the practice among most Christians in India? Does it mean adopting a Western lifestyle?
  3. Redefining the mission of the Church. There is a need to rethink and redefine the mission and priorities of the Church. Is it to fill the church with more and more members, so that “my church” is the fastest growing one in town? Charles Colson calls for such a need in his book, The Body: Being Light in Darkness (1993): “It’s no surprise that nonbelievers don’t really know much about the Church’s identity or mission. But when Christians themselves are undergoing widespread identity crisis, then we are in big trouble. This confusion strips the Church of its authority….When compared with the previous generations of believers, we seem among the most thoroughly at peace with our culture, the least adept at transforming society, and desperate for meaningful faith. Our raison d’etre is confused, our mission obscured, and our existence as a people is in jeopardy. Worst of all, our leaders know it—but seem unable to do anything about….It is hard to imagine, therefore, a more urgent or critical task than the recovery and restoration of the biblical view of the Church.”
  4. Comparing the Great Commission with the Great Commandment. Over the last few centuries the Great Commission has become the priority of the Church. This has led to the spawning of many evangelistic ministries. In some instances, this has happened to the total neglect of the Great Commandment. Because of this, in many cases, conversion has become the main agenda. We need to remember that the term “Great Commission” is an interpretive term and not given by the Lord.
  5. Comparing the Great Commission and the Second Coming of Christ. The linking of the Great Commission with the Second Coming of Christ on the basis of Matthew 24:14 has led to an overdrive (in the form of Mission 2000, etc.) in our evangelistic strategies and goals. To what extent is such a linking appropriate?
  6. Looking at the role of the individual and local church. To what extent should evangelism and mercy ministries be done by institutions and with national or global goals and objectives? To what extent should they have large budgets, large publicity, large programmes, and large workforces? What is the role of the individual and the local church? Is it just to support financially or through prayer? Hasn’t the institutionalization of ministry led to the undermining of the individual and the local church to be “salt and light” and to be agents of transformation?
  7. Redrawing criteria for success in ministry. If success is measured on the basis of numbers or largeness (big budgets, big projects, big buildings) of the ministry, then surely our strategies call for aggressive evangelism to bring in the numbers. But is this the right criteria? What constitutes a successful life and ministry?
  8. Increasing cultural engagement. Our cultural engagement with society and the world at large is minimal. This is reflected in the fact that we are so biblical in our language that we do not have a language (or in many instances, a context) to engage the world in meaningful communication. This is evident in the fact that we shift to “gospel talk” within a few minutes into a conversation, thus antagonizing people. This also gives the impression that our primary agenda is conversion.
  9. Relooking at separation. Our lack of cultural engagement with society is a result of our teaching about “separation” from the world. We need a relook at the whole teaching of what separation in scripture means.
  10. Understanding funding from abroad. Most ministries in India today depend upon funds from abroad—this in itself has generated fears of Western imperialism invading India through the Church. A rethink is badly needed about such ministry by the Western Church and the funding agencies.
  11. Understanding fund-raising and spending. A serious introspection is needed in the areas of fund-raising and fund-spending. Quite often, in order to keep the flow of funds, there is dishonesty in reporting and a lack of accountability.
  12. Addressing start-up churches and ministries. We need to know the “who and how” of starting fellowships, churches, and ministries. The trend has been to start churches and organizations at random—in most cases, as a competition, because of personality clashes, or even because of minor differences. Can anyone, anywhere, start a church or a parachurch? To whom is such a person accountable? Only to the Lord, the head of the Church? Should there be doctrinal, moral, and financial accountability systems—and to whom?
  13. Understanding citizenship. There is also a need for introspection about our credentials as patriots, and how to manage the tension between being citizens of God’s kingdom and citizens of a particular country.

Each one of the above areas and questions needs to be addressed by evangelists and Christians today. These have contributed directly or indirectly to the present antagonism against Christianity. Our faulty understanding and approach should not be the cause of offense to the world. Where we can avoid such a situation by making corrections we should sincerely engage in such an exercise.

We need to rediscover the way our Lord and his apostles served. May the Lord help us.

Enoch Era is an itinerant preacher and writer based in Hyderabad, India. He mentors two fellowship groups called Aradhana and Ashirvad. He also leads Rupanthar, a group working toward transformation; one of their current projects is for the improvement of traffic safety in Hyderabad. His email is [email protected].