Do you feel like a failure if you haven’t converted anyone?
This was the question that my friend asked me about my work in the neighborhood where I live.
My friend who is not a Christian, had read my book Urban Spirituality: Embodying God’s Mission in the Neighborhood. In this book, I write about the work I do in my local urban neighborhood, loving the place where you live and serving the community.
The Question of Conversion
Since the book is from a Christian missional perspective she was curious and asked, “So if you are a missionary here then do you need to convert people?” I thought it was a great question. My friend genuinely wanted to know what I was doing in the urban space where we both lived. She wanted to know what was my motive and task.
It’s a pertinent question because if you have been called to live in a place, love it and perhaps start up a faith community there as I have, it’s something you constantly wrestle with. What am I actually doing here if I have not “converted” anyone?
The Question of Effectiveness
Our Christian culture says that if we can’t measure our “fruit” through numbers then we are failures. Many denominations create scorecards which measure growth through identifying targets around money, people in the church, programs and buildings in order to gauge whether church planting is a success. So if you don’t meet the standard on the scorecard which has been constructed in order to measure success, you can feel like a failure and wonder if you are being effective.
The Question of the Gospel
The question also made me think about my theology. Must I proclaim the gospel and see a conversion in order to feel as though I have been successful in my mission? The moment my friend asked me that question I had to decide what I actually thought the gospel is. Moreover, I had to ask, what are we aiming for as Christians who are doing local missionary and church planting work? What do we value?
If I answered my friend and said that I did not feel like a failure then would I be dismissing the gospel and its proclamation? If I said that yes indeed I felt like a failure then my friend would think I had an agenda to convert her. This would devalue our friendship and all the other things I do in the community outside of “gospel proclamation”.
How would you answer that question if you were doing the work of a missionary in the place where you live?
I answered her that I did not feel like a failure. I said I was doing the work in our community with others in order to help it flourish and as I did that, if someone asked me why I am doing this, I would tell them. If they decided to join me in sharing the values and coming to know the person of Jesus I would welcome it. I wanted to make it clear to my friend that I was her friend simply because I valued her for who she is, not because I wanted to convert her.
However, I also want people to know that I do this work “in the name of Jesus”. I want to be careful about how I frame that statement, but it means I care for my neighborhood, I love those who are on the margins there, I work with community groups and learn from them, empowered by a love that comes from beyond my own resources.
On my own I’d find it hard to love in this way. My tendency is towards selfishness and hanging out with people who are like me, but God’s love compels me to love the unlovable, listen to and learn from those who are different to me and to give up my time to participate with the work that is going on in my place where I live.
Segundo Galilea says
“Mission is to leave one’s own geographic or cultural Christian world in order to enter the world of even the poorest and the most unchristian. The non-believer, the fallen away Christian, the poor and the oppressed are always the subject of missionary love, and the more mission leaves its own world in search of them, the more it is radicalized and the closer it approaches the model and desire of Christ.”
The missionary love of God in us compels us to radically connect with those who see themselves as far from God. As we do this we imitate Jesus who loved us beyond what our imaginations can grasp and so we point to him that others too might come to know that love. This kind of love does not begin with the desire to convert someone, it begins with valuing the person or people just as they are and then leaving it up to God to do the converting. This requires trusting God is always at work and that he is building his church, not us.