Selling Vacuums, Giving Away Parting Gifts, And Pantomiming The Gospel

A book by a Catholic priest who journeyed to Tanzania to bring the gospel to the Masai gave me a new way to think about evangelism that goes beyond the models I’ve seen in action. These models have borne a passing resemblance to either 1950′s door-to-door vacuum cleaner sales, game shows featuring lovely parting gifts, or encoded Christian mime performances.

Father Vincent J. Donavan journeyed to Tanzania to during the 1960′s and 1970′s bring the gospel to the Masai people. Encamped in the lonely, starry darkness outside a tribal village, Father Donovan experienced a paradigm shift of the highest magnitude as the culture and belief system of the Masai collided with his preconceived Western understanding of what evangelism, church and faith were each supposed to be. He came to the region as an evangelist, and recognized that the history of mission in the region, particularly in Africa, had been almost entirely about overlaying Western cultural norms and institutional Church practice onto an existing people, suffocating their God-given identity and calling in the process. While one of the rallying cries of the Church for generations, in particular among Protestants, has been “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” (the Church must always be reforming), we have often defaulted instead to small tweaks and recalibrations within our own institutions. Father Donovan’s story shows us what true reformation looks like.

His book, Christianity Rediscovered (Orbis Books, 1978) offers a valuable exploration of the process of stripping faith down to its naked essentials. [Read more]

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