I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference of Christian refugee workers in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a week filled with meeting new people, hearing about projects around Europe, and some good reflection on what refugee work means within a broader context of building the Kingdom of God.
Many of the workers and organizations represented at the conference were from various evangelical groups and missionary organizations. The topic of evangelization was discussed frequently, specifically within the context of ministering to refugees.
My time in Europe has in some part been a time of examining identities. As I’ve found myself in different contexts and cultures, my understandings of my identities have evolved, especially those related to faith. What does it mean to be a Christian, a missionary, a Christ follower, and yes an evangelical?
In recent years, I’ve used the word evangelical sparingly. Since Trump’s election and the data and media coverage since, the term is extremely loaded and means a myriad of different things to different people. Often it is understood with a negative connotation. My own understanding of the term and concept is indeed mixed and more often than not negative.
The word conjures up images of street preachers and aggressive evangelists. People caring far more about saving souls than being in real relationships with others. I think of closed-minded people who aren’t rooted in the realities of the world and its people. Often I find evangelicals too focused on the sin of the world and not enough on God’s grace, love, and goodness. And I see a lot of the harm that has come out of evangelical movements.
Indeed some of these people were well represented at this conference. Many were obsessed with converting Muslim refugees en masse and seemed to care little about their actual lives or stories unless they involved Jesus. Some went as far as to say that God caused the refugee crisis so that peoples from “closed off countries” where missionaries have less access would travel to Europe where they are more easily accessed and converted. I am very uncomfortable with the idea of a God of love and compassion causing war, famine, and destruction so that those wearied and tattered souls that survive the journey to safety can then have their vulnerability capitalized on for the sake of conversion numbers.
During one of the afternoons we had the opportunity to visit local refugee work being done by the Bosnian Baptists. Once we arrived at the community center where refugees in the city could come for meals, we were told that this was a shared space with other religious organizations and it was a neutral space, meaning no religious teaching was allowed to take place there. One of the conference attendees however did not listen to this and instead, after only brief conversation with some of the refugees at the center and with questionable consent from the refugees themselves, took refugees phones and downloaded a Christian bible translation app. Perhaps, yes these refugees now have access to the gospel in their own language, but in doing so this visiting conference attendee put the entire operation and work of on the ground volunteers in jeopardy. A local volunteer complained to our partners and thankfully no harm was done, but it is this blind and reckless evangelization that makes me extremely skeptical of evangelical practices.
Indeed some of the worst aspects of evangelicals were on display at this conference. And yet so were the best.
Through countless conversations I heard of those with genuine hearts that break for refugees. I met people who are working tirelessly to fight for the rights of refugees, to secure their safety, and to ensure they are treated with dignity regardless of their faith background. And I heard authentic stories of how Jesus really had transformed people’s lives.
The main speaker of the conference pushed back on some of the bad expressions of evangelicalism. He went back to Jesus’ words in Matthew of the great commission. He pointed out before Jesus said anything about making disciples and baptizing, He says that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus is Lord, not us. God is the one in control and transforming lives. It is the Holy Spirit that changes people’s hearts, not us. Only with this understanding can we go forward to share the Good News with others. We are humble partners in the expansive work of building God’s Kingdom on earth. And that is far more and far greater work than simply converting people.
I love to see how healthy this is modeled in my church in Austria. In a year and a half I have never evangelized anyone. I have never gone out to try and convert. In fact none of our leaders do. Yet we see new people in our fellowship almost every week. When you ask how someone came to church, they point across the room to their friend. And when you ask that person the same question they point across the room to their friend and so on. Jesus’ love and His Gospel story is spreading naturally through the loving relationships and openness of our community. God is working. We are just lucky enough to be along for the ride.
Yes, the expressions of evangelicalism can either make my heart swell and bring tears to my eyes, or it can make me squirm in my seat and fill me with a righteous anger. Yet, I am somehow one of them and they are members of my Christian family. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ even if I don’t always like it.
One of the last sessions the mains speaker focused on how important it is for the Church to model the peace and reconciliation of God to others outside of the faith. We ended this particular session by praying for someone we did not know near to us. Even before we were asked to break up into pairs, I had a feeling that the man sitting next to me was a hyper-conservative evangelical. And within 30 seconds of conversation, that was indeed confirmed. I knew that if this man knew even the slightest about me and my beliefs he would disagree with me strongly and even be upset. And perhaps I would do the same. But, I took a deep breath, smiled and we sincerely prayed for each other.
We ended each time of prayer as a group saying the Lord’s Prayer together. Probably 30 countries and 15 language groups were represented, and so quickly the prayer turned into a holy murmur of around 150 people praying to God in their various native languages:
“Our Father who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive others who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen”
It’s not always easy to be a part of the family of God, but I am thankful regardless. I am thankful for imperfect coworkers in Christ who are along for the ride with me. May we love others well and treat all with dignity and respect.