I read a lot of books. Most of them aren’t church books. Yes, I do have a life outside of church! Of the church books I’ve read, I’ve read many that were touted as the single “must read” book of all time that will totally revolutionize your life and your ministry. They almost always fall short of expectations.
So I was skeptical when I recently heard someone describe a book with similar superlatives. It’s an older book. It was published in 1978. I’d never heard of it. Neither had out local libraries. It was not listed in the Nampa/Treasure Valley library system. I got it on an inter-library loan from Gonzaga University of all places. Probably because the author is a Catholic Priest. I expected it to be another one of those books that fails to live up to the hype. It took me about two pages to ask myself, where has this book been all my life?
It’s called Christianity Rediscovered. It was written by Vincent Donovan. You may remember I could not keep it out of my sermon a couple of weeks ago. It’s the one about the missionary to the Masai of Tanzania in east Africa.
The old way of doing mission work was to go way beyond the simple sharing of Jesus Christ. It was felt necessary also to impose western culture and values. Until the native people built churches that looked like churches should look and sang hymns that sounded like hymns should sound, the missionary’s work was not done. It was a “we know best” approach that treated those who were receiving the Gospel as inferior.
What Vincent Donovan did was to strip the Gospel down to its core, respect indigenous ways, and trust the Holy Spirit to give shape to the new churches once he had left and was busy sharing Jesus elsewhere. I can imagine Father Donovan locked horns with his superiors, because he didn’t seem at all interested in the trappings of Catholicism! Even the United Methodist Book of Discipline would be seriously stretched by the way he operated. But it worked. Like Paul in the New Testament, he left behind strong Christians and strong churches.
His secret? He wasn’t trying to sell them anything. He met them as one who was searching and seeking as they were. He didn’t talk down to them. He was bold about sharing Jesus. But he was also gracious about the way he shared. He was interested first in getting to know them and their ways, their hurts and their longings.
here are the words he heard coming out of his mouth one day, words he had not intended to speak: “No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe together, we will find him.”
I don’t think I’ll ever be a missionary to Africa. But I am a missionary right were I am. You are too. God expects us to share jesus with those who don’t know him or don’t know him well. The reason Father Donovan’s book so spoke to me was because it helped me to see how a missionary in a place like Nampa, Idaho needs to operate.
We aren’t going to succeed in winning many new people to Jesus by talking down to them, or arguing with them, or insisting that they first learn to appreciate what we appreciate in terms of worship style. When our purpose statement says that we are here to “Know Christ”, that doesn’t mean that we already know him, we’ve already found him, and now we will do others the great favor of lifting them to our level. That approach would be offensive. And it isn’t what we really believe, is it?
Would you agree with me that we are all on the same journey of getting to know Jesus? We are inviting others to join us in the journey. We aren’t standing on the top of the mountain calling to those below to hurry up and get to where we are. We are still climbing, we are traveling together, to a new place. A place where neither they nor we have ever been before. Let’s search for Jesus together. Maybe together, we will find him.
Pastor John Watts