Imagine this: a poor peasant in El Salvador is born in the 1960s. Let’s call her Anita. She was baptized. She was lucky. She went to school until third grade, and then was pulled out to work in the fields to help support her family. She lived in the same village her whole life. Her family were simple,hard working and poor. They prayed the rosary together most nights and went to Mass every Sunday. The priest prepared her for first Holy Communion with the other girls. She accepted what he said and went forward to make her first confession and receive Christ. A few years later she went into a class with the other boys and girls that met on a Sunday afternoon and they prepared for confirmation. She accepted what the priest said, and accepted confirmation at the hands of the bishop. She got married in the church to a local boy who worked on the same plantation. They had children and they too took them to church to be baptized. They prayed the rosary with them. They went to Mass every week.
At no time did Anita reject her Christian faith. Indeed, as far as she was able she was instructed and lived that faith. When she sinned she went to confession. She tried to bring up her children in the faith, and she always accepted Jesus Christ and his blessings in her life.
Here’s the question: is Anita a Christian or does she need to be converted to Christ?
The Catholic says, “No brainer. Anita is a wonderful Christian who lives by faith. She has accepted Christ. She is a good member of the Church. She is a sister in the Lord.”
The big problem I have with Baptist missionary teams going to Latin America is that, by default, they consider Anita to be ‘unchurched’. Because Anita has not ‘been saved’ they regard her as a target for their evangelism efforts. The first problem is their arrogant assumption that Anita does not ‘have a personal relationship with Christ.’ Yet every objective sign is that she does indeed have a very simple, very profound and very serious committment to Christ. It may not use the same language as a Southern Baptist, but it is a personal relationship nonetheless.
So Bobby and Betty Sue came marching in with their loud American voices, their rich clothes and their flashy style and tell poor Anita that she’s not really a Christian. She hasn’t really ‘been saved.’ Without troubling themselves to really understand Catholicism at all, they assume that Anita is locked into superstition, salvation by works and ‘empty rituals to please a demanding God.’ Anita needs not only to have a more personal understanding of what Christ has done for her and what her baptism and membership in the church means.
She also needs to be delivered from the bondage of the darkness of Roman Catholicism.
It’s pretty hard not to believe these bright, enthusiastic American young people. They seem so convinced, so happy and so ready to help Anita with all her needs. Maybe if she joins their church she will be able to be rich like they are. So Anita goes to church and ‘accepts Jesus into her heart.’ Next she learns that the Catholic Church was wrong about everything and she needs to be re-baptized. She needs to reject that old Catholic faith, and she soon learns all sorts of terrible things about the Catholic faith that her priest never told her…
Catholics are properly annoyed at this evangelistic enterprise. We’re annoyed not just because many of these simple Catholic folks are lured away from the fullness of their faith, but also because their dignity is trampled on by the crass assumptions of the sincere missionaries. Protestants doing sterling work among the genuinely unconverted and winning those who are genuinely unchurched is one thing. More power to them. What we object to is that for most of them every Catholic (just because they’re Catholic) is considered to be unconverted and in need of salvation.
I’d ask any Evangelical who engages on this kind of missionary effort: how would you feel if a Jehovah’s Witness visited your godly, but simple Baptist grandma, and with leading questions, psychological pressure and constant badgering eventually got her to join the Jehovah’s Witness and so separated her from her faith, her family and maybe even her salvation?
You’d be dismayed and a not a little put out.
That’s how I feel when you ‘evangelize’ my sister Anita.