Thursday, February 27, 2014

Evangelism And Aid Don’t Mix

(Someone recently asked me about the issue of aid and evangelism. My answer was simple: The two don't mix. It reminded me of a column I wrote in 2005, after the December, 2004 southeast Asian tsunami, and some of the fallout from groups that did mix the two.)

I once worked as an orderly in the intensive care unit of a Catholic hospital. During training, we were told that staff members were not permitted to do any proselytizing among patients—no exceptions.

At first glance, this made no sense—what better place to talk about God than a hospital? That’s the place where people are sick, maybe even dying, and might be most interested in things like salvation and eternity.

But the rule was sound. It was put in place to protect patients, who were terribly vulnerable, from staff—however well-meaning we might be.

After all, patients couldn’t escape if they didn’t want to hear me talk about religion, particularly if they were hooked up to monitors and other equipment.

Plus, if they felt that the quality of their care depended on politely listening to me talk about faith, they might be reluctant to ask me to stop for fear of jeopardizing that care.

I mention this because in February the Indonesian government said it was considering imposing restrictions on aid groups helping tsunami victims.

The reason? Some Christian agencies are mixing missionary activity with relief operations. 

The case that sparked the most outrage was a plan by a U.S.-based church group to find Christian homes for 300 orphaned Muslim children from the Indonesian province of Aceh.

According to the Washington Post, the group had posted a message on its web site saying it wanted to find homes for the children so it could “plant Christian principles as early as possible.”

As well, by placing them in Christian homes, “their faith in Christ could become the foothold to reach the Aceh people,” the group added.

That wasn’t the only example. Great Britain’s The Telegraph interviewed a Christian aid worker in Indonesia who said that although he was ostensibly in the country to provide aid, his real purpose was to convert Muslims.

“I'm not here to do relief work,” he said, describing tsunami survivors as good candidates for conversion.

The fact of the matter is this: Mixing help for others and evangelism is wrong. It was wrong when I worked at the hospital, it’s wrong in Asia, and it's wrong wherever else humanitarian assistance is needed.

It’s wrong because it takes advantage of vulnerable people at their time of greatest need. Tsunami survivors who have lost everything may do anything to secure the help they require, including accepting Jesus—if they believe that's the only way to obtain desperately-needed aid. That is an abuse of power.

But it’s not only that; linking aid and evangelism is bad evangelistic strategy.

In the 19th century the phrase “rice Christians” was coined to describe people in Asia who converted not out of conviction, but because that was the only way to obtain food from missionaries.

As long as there was free food, they went to church; when their need for food ended, they returned to their former beliefs. Something similar can happen to groups that make converts among tsunami victims.

Of course, church-related aid groups should never hide the fact that they are motivated by deeply-held Christian beliefs. But they should never make accepting their beliefs—or even sitting through a sermon to get soup and a sandwich—a prerequisite for obtaining help. 

My worry is that the all Christian aid agencies will be tainted by the unethical actions of the few. It could make some countries reluctant to allow all church-related groups in to do much-needed work. 
That would be regrettable, and ultimately harm the people who need help most.

Francis of Assisi, the 13th century saint, is reported to have said: “Preach Christ at all times. If necessary, use words.” That's good advice for church aid groups.

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