Last Saturday when we arrived at Greenville Spartanburg airport we had to jostle for a place to check in because there was a group of 70 Baptist young people wearing jazzy T-shirts with Bible verses on them. They were off to Nicaragua on a mission trip. When we got to Atlanta there must have been another twelve such groups. They were clearly well organized, well funded and well, pretty annoying.
Now I’m one who has a lot of time for the Evangelical Protestants. I value the solid Christian faith I received as an Protestant. I like their zeal, their love for the Scriptures, their willingness to give sacrificially, their desire to spread the gospel and they usually do pretty good covered dish suppers.
However, I am annoyed by their open and aggressive missionary efforts in Catholic lands. I’m annoyed by it because it is based on the underlying assumption that “these people are held bondage in the darkness of Catholicism.” The language coming from Protestants may not be the old “Pope as Anti-Christ” stuff, but the foundational belief is still that Catholics aren’t really Christians, and that they need to get saved. Furthermore, the religion they are marketing is distinctly American. It comes with a whole slew of American assumptions about the world, and the Protestant American religion they are promoting is inevitably loaded with cultural exports that actually undermine already existing cultures.
The Protestant may respond that they are simply filling a need, and if the Catholic Church were doing it’s job, the people wouldn’t respond so readily to the Evangelical message. There may be some truth to that, and maybe the Catholic church has failed to evangelize successfully. This is pretty galling, considering that the Catholic Church evangelized these lands at great sacrifice in the sixteenth and seventeenth century far more effectivelly than the Protestants did in North America. You only have to read the stories of the amazing courage and sacrifice of the Jesuits and Franciscans of the time to see that the Catholics were busy as fantastic missionaries and martyrs while the Protestant Calvinists up North were (for the most part) ignoring the savages because they thought they could not possibly be part of the ‘elect’.
I’ve tried hard to see the Protestant missionary efforts in Catholic lands positively, but I can’t. Here’s why: by very definition, in making a Catholic a Protestant they must narrow down the faith and make the convert deny his membership in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to join a sect. The convert himself may enjoy his new religion. He may actually gain some benefit in terms of belonging to a warm fellowship of believers or getting more knowledge of the Bible. He may feel ‘closer to Jesus’, but if, in the process, he has actually left the fullness of the faith, the experience has been illusory and subjective. In addition he has actually embraced much that is simply false teaching.
I have heard of some Evangelical missionary efforts to Catholic lands which are laudable. These are the ones that come in with the undoubted gifts of the Evangelical movement, and help Catholics to understand their faith better, and to become better Catholics. These groups, while remaining Evangelical, seek to work with the Catholic Church to catechize and evangelize. The best ones understand Catholicism, respect Catholic faith and culture and seek to renew it from within.
In the meantime, let’s get more of our own Catholic mission teams down to Central America, and let’s get some jazzy T-shirts with a big bold print of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the back and for a Bible verse–Ephesians 4.4-5 will do:
There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism;