by Jerry Webber
Among some Christian mission organizations, I’m noticing a shift in strategy. Whereas at one time these groups would have been in-yourface aggressive, zealous, and overt in their evangelism, many are shifting their ways.
I know of mission agencies that are now talking about doing concrete acts of service for those who are the focus of their evangelistic endeavors. Their statements use the language of “love” and suggest that these acts of service are done in love for the cause of Christ.
Some of these deeds involve offering medical, educational, agricultural, or economic services in foreign countries. Some involve more tangible, hands-on efforts closer to home: sitting with a home-bound person, doing house repairs and painting, providing childcare, or offering attentiveness to young people in an after-school program.
Each of these expressions, among others, are tangible ways to offer oneself to Christ for the sake of others. Those who give their time in these ways offer a concrete ministry to persons who have specific needs. They generously offer their time and energy.
There is, however, an undercurrent I have seen and heard in this emerging strategy. It arises from the motivation for these “deeds of love.” Sometimes the motivation is spoken plainly, and other times it is whispered secretly. I have literally heard it spoken and read it written, stated something like this: “We are going to love people by serving them, in order to gain their trust so we can preach the Gospel to them.”
In other words, love people and build trust by doing deeds of service, then preach the Gospel. Use love and service to get in the front door, then tell them the really important stuff.
Perhaps this is an improvement on the old mission policy, which was forceful and heavy-handed. It didn’t honor the “other,” but put the one sharing the Christian message in a position of power. There was also the not-so-subtle understanding: “I believe that I have the truth in my pocket, and that my responsibility as a Christian is to share the truth I have with those who don’t have it. I’m right. You’re wrong. But let me tell you how you can be right like me.”
The older model of evangelism only asked that you be a salesperson, able to close the deal. Believe me, in my former life, I taught many workshops on how to “close the faith-deal.”
At least the new wave of evangelism includes some service, some action on behalf of those in need. Yet here is my issue: this action is done under the guise of “love.” This service is misnamed “love,” when it is actually a tool, an instrument for getting in the front door, for building trust, for gaining access. Service pretends to be love, but in truth it is a tool of some other motivation.
Love will have none of that. Love seeks no reward. Love does not manipulate. Love does not act one way in hopes of gaining access for another purpose. To serve someone in order to gain trust and access may be something like manipulation or control, but it is not love. There are no conditions to love. Love does not say, “I will do this for you, but you, then, must let me have some time to tell you about Christ.”
Love does not use one pretense to attain some other advantage for itself: “I will love you if it helps me gain access, if it wins me the right to share something with you later.”
Love simply gives itself, regardless of the other, whether the other person receives the love or not, whether the other person opens his/her door or not, whether the other welcomes it or not.
Love gives itself without condition. It is generated not by outer circumstances, not by what it will gain me, not by what it will do for me or even for God; love is generated from within. It is the nature of love to love, whether there is a return on that love or not. In fact, I would say that when “love” expects a return, it is not love at all, but only a cleverly disguised form of control or manipulation.
I have a litmus test I use with myself: “Can I love this person or thing or situation without needing to change it?” Or to put it another way, “If this person/thing/situation never changes, can I still embody love in it?”
You see, love is not dependent on the change that may (or may not) take place in the other person, situation, or thing.
In a committed relationship, can I love this other person, even if he/ she never changes?
In my work, can I still embody love, even if the work environment never gets better?
Can my life be fulfilled and happy, even if I never move to that town where there are no problems and the weather is always pleasant?
In other words, can I love what is without needing to change it?
Of course, you will find that when you love what is without needing to change it, the other person or thing very often does change when faced with the generosity of a love that does not need to control or manipulate it.
Many of us at The Center for Christian Spirituality in Houston are reading through Anthony de Mello’s The Way to Love this summer. De Mello has a way of cutting through illusions (and delusions) about our capacity to love, about what love truly is. What we call love is most often not love at all, and de Mello has a straightforward way of calling us out on that.
Here are just a few of his statements:
- “Love can only exist in freedom. The true lover seeks the good of his beloved which requires especially the liberation of the beloved from the lover.” (26)
- “No thing or person outside of you has the power to make you happy or unhappy.” (38)
- “The royal road to mysticism and to Reality does not pass through the world of people. It passes through the world of actions that are engaged in for themselves without an eye to success or to gain—or profit actions.” (65)
- “Here is a second quality of love—its gratuitousness. Like the tree, the rose, the lamp, it gives and asks for nothing in return.” (77)
- “Love so enjoys the loving that it is blissfully unaware of itself.” (78)
- “The light, the fragrance and the shade are not produced at the approach of persons and turned off when there is no one there. These things, like love, exist independently of persons. Love simply is, it has no object. They simply are, regardless of whether someone will benefit from them or not . . . Their left hand has no consciousness of what their right hand does.” (78)
- “The moment coercion or control or conflict enters, love dies.” (79)
Source: Recovering Faith: Words for the Way. Volume 2 [Kelly Hall, ed]