Evangelism and Critical Presence


The word “missionary” comes with some heavy historical baggage. In one painful example, missionaries from one of the United Church of Christ (our sending church) predecessor denominations played an important role in the US colonization of Hawaii in the 1880’s and 90´s.

File:'A Missionary Preaching to the Natives, under a Skreen of platted Cocoa-nut leaves at Kairua' by William Ellis.jpg

Nowadays, the UCC and its partner church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), send missionaries not to convert or colonize, but to accompany: to walk with rather than step on. Global Ministries, our sending organization, operates under the concept of “critical presence,” which means, “­­­­meeting God’s people and creation at the point of deepest need—spiritually, physically, emotionally and/or economically.” The organization works with partner organizations that request specific assistance, and, as missionaries, our job is to support our partners as they pursue their own visions and expressions of Christian faith.

Luis Palau

An advertisement in Asunción for a mega-revival with internationally known pastor Luís Palau

I believe strongly in this conception of missionary work, so it has been a challenge for me to adapt to the larger trend here in Argentina and Paraguay of direct personal evangelism. At the root of my discomfort lies the fact that, as a person born into the wealth and privilege of the Global North, I don’t believe I have the right to tell people from another culture and different socioeconomic circumstance what to believe. I certainly communicate aspects of my faith to others, but I do so with the understanding that their relationship with God may be different from my own, because their unique cultural and economic experience may give them a different set of spiritual needs.


A fruit vendor outside Asunción’s Disciples of Christ-affiliated Friendship Mission

And so, just as we are not missionaries in the conventional historical sense, neither do we practice a conventional evangelism. Our evangelism is of listening, of presence, of witnessing to the struggles of the churches here in Argentina and Paraguay. Above all, it is an evangelism of allowing our personal journeys of faith to merge with, sustain, and take sustenance from, the journeys of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

A timeline showing important events in the life of the church in Vedia, Argentina

Sometimes this evangelism comes in the form of a workshop about leadership styles, in which we invite our partners to examine and discern their own calls to serve their communities. Sometimes it comes in the form of activities that strengthen the ties between congregations in Argentina and Paraguay. Sometimes it comes in the form of conversation shared over mate, in which we listen to the daily news of our friends’ lives, and let them help us with our own struggles. And sometimes it takes the form of a blog post, where we open ourselves up to you, dear family, friends, and compassionate strangers, expressing how we have been humbled and altered by our experiences here in the Southern Cone.

Mother's Day

Celebrating Mother’s Day at the Disciples of Christ church at Avenida Perú in Asunción

I am open to the possibility that my discomfort with proselytizing makes me a disappointing missionary. But I pray that, just as my own faith is constantly renewed and strengthened by those who have shared mate and fellowship with me, so might I be a conduit of strength and renewal for others.

4 Responses to “Evangelism and Critical Presence”

  1. Well stated, James, and sensitively thought out.

  2. I have also had an identity crisis with this job title! I wrote a very similar blog entry not long ago venting my frustrations with the differing perceptions of ‘missions’. Your entry echos many of my own feelings, thanks for sharing!


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