Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




Why We Still Need Missionaries

Sunday, July 3, 2005



Romans 10: 12-17

Matthew 28: 16-20


Rev. Dean Snyder

Dean Snyder, Senior Minister, is a preacher, writer and activist who coordinates a talented ministerial and lay staff. He has previously served congregations in Philadelphia as well as a director of communications, editor, specialist in congregational development and new church starts, campus minister and college instructor. A graduate of Boston University School of Theology and Albright College, his articles have appeared in dozens of publications.


Our young people are back, sunburned and mosquito-bitten, from a week in the farthest stretch of Virginia that you could imagine, after a week of volunteering mission service with the Appalachian Service Project.


At the end of the service today, we have a team that we will pray over and bless – nineteen Foundry folk who are leaving this Tuesday to go to Zimbabwe, where they will be of service in several mission projects.


This week Jane and I will leave for Liberia: me on Tuesday, Jane on Friday.  I will be part of a study team, studying working conditions there. Then Jane will join me for a week of fellowship and visiting Methodist ministries in Liberia.


Then, next Sunday, we will commission a junior high mission team. This is a new project that Matt Smith has pulled together because, after hearing so much about ASP and other mission projects, our junior high said that they wanted to be part of the action, too. So, we will have a junior high weekend mission trip.


Those of us who participate in these kinds of service projects are often called, in church lingo, “short-term missionaries.” But we really aren’t the kind of missionary I thought of when I heard the word “missionary” when I was growing up. We are more like sojourners with brothers and sisters who live in other lands.


Last week, my friend Rev. Gladman Kapfumvuti, who is here from Zimbabwe studying at Wesley Seminary, came and met with our Volunteer In Mission team that is going to Zimbabwe. Gladman introduced to them the Shona word “chabadza.” Many of the people of Zimbabwe come historically from the Shona nation, the Shona tribes. Their first language is still Shona. There is a word in Shona that Gladman taught us, “chabadza,” which is now my second favorite Shona word. My favorite Shona word is “zvakanaka,” which is roughly translated “okeydokey.” So, if you are ever in Zimbabwe or meet a Shona person and they say to you, “How are you doing?” you can always answer “zvakanaka.” And if they ask, “How is it going?” you can always answer “zvakanaka.” So, you should be prepared for that.


So to support our VIM team, let’s learn that word together: “zvakanaka.”


The new word that Gladman taught us is “chabadza.” Chabadza is really more than just a word; it is a philosophy. The way Gladman explained it was this. In Zimbabwe, if you are going somewhere and you pass a neighbor who is working in his or her field, you don’t just keep on walking by, waving to them. You stop and help them work in their field for a few minutes – not a long time because you have your own work to do. After a few minutes, you say good-bye and wish them all your best, and go about your own task. But you never walk by someone working in a field or carrying a heavy load without stopping and helping them for at least a few minutes.


What Gladman was saying to us is that our mission trip to Zimbabwe is like a chabadza. We are not going to move there. We are not going to live there the rest of our lives. We are just going to stop in our own journey, for a few minutes, to be with and help brothers and sisters and neighbors who have work to do.


So, this is how Gladman told us we should understand our Volunteer in Mission trip: the Shona idea of chabadza. This is really a philosophy of life. It is not just about stopping and helping someone working in their field. It’s about how we live our lives. The task we are doing is never so important that we don’t have at least a few minutes for someone else that has a job to do or a load to carry: chabadza. So that is what our mission trips are about. It’s more about community and learning from one another.


When I was growing up, I thought of missionaries as people who went from here to lands where people did not know about Christianity to teach them about Christianity and to help them become Christians. Most of the time, when we do our mission trips now, we are going to work with people who frankly are often more faithful in their discipleship than we are. I have never been part of a visit to United Methodists in some other part of the world, when I have not come back saying to myself: “How can it be that I am not more committed and devoted to the gospel, to love and to Christian service when I have so much and these folk that I have just spent two weeks with have so little and give of themselves so generously? How can I be so selfish with my blessings when I have so much and they are so generous and they have so little?”


In fact, my experiences are that I have usually come back having been challenged to become more committed in my faith rather than taking faith and leaving it with other people.


So, I want to ask the question this morning whether we still need the old kind of missionaries – the ones who went into parts of the world in order to invite people who are not Christians to become Christians. The reason I ask this, the reason this is a question for me, is because I do not believe that only Christians are saved and the rest of the world is lost, including those followers of the great and beautiful religions of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Shintoism, Confucianism, and our parent faith as Christians, Judaism.


I am a believer in what Paul Tillich called “logos” theology. It was based on the first chapter of the gospel of John which says this: “In the beginning was the word and the word was God and everything that came into being came into being through him.” In other words, the word, the logos, the Christ is present in creation everywhere and in all people.


I, in fact, believe that there are some Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims who resonate with the spirit of God more than some of us who are Christians. The reason I believe that is because I know Buddhists and Hindus who are filled with the spirit of Christ even if that is not the language they use. It is Christ, remember, and not Christianity, who is the way, the truth and the life. So I do not believe that Christianity and the Christian Church has the corner on Christ. I believe that in the beginning there was the word, the logos, the Christ. In creation, Christ permeated the world, including other religious traditions.


So, if that is the case, why do we still need missionaries to share the gospel and the faith with people who are not Christians?


The answer, I think, is this: we need missionaries, not because everyone in the whole world has to become a Christian and a member of the Christian church to know Christ, but because the Christian church needs to include some of everyone on the face of the earth. I don’t think that everyone on the face of the earth has to become a Christian to know God. But I think that the church needs to be inclusive of every nationality, culture, ethnicity and race on the face of the earth.


The reason that needs to happen is because the job of the church of Jesus Christ is to be the sign to the world that it is not nationality or culture or ethnicity or race that is ultimate. All of those things are secondary and penultimate. In order to be that sign, we need to include some of everyone.


Jesus told his disciples and us to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, to make disciples from all nations, so that we can be a sign that there is a community that transcends nationality, culture, ethnicity, and race. I believe that God has placed in the hearts of some persons of all nations and peoples everywhere a receptivity to the Christian story, so that the church can be universal. But the call of the church to be universal does not mean that we should be imperialistic or assume that we have the corner on Christ.


The job of missionaries is to go into the world, to learn the culture to which they are sent, to discover Christ already there in that culture, and then to extend a warm invitation to those who may choose to become part of the institutional church, the structured community of Jesus Christ. It is never a missionary’s job, or any of our jobs, to tell others they are wrong, or that they are ignorant, or that they are bound for hell because they are not a part of our particular community, because we just don’t know that. We just don’t know that.


I think Jesus tried to remind us of this when he said: “Other sheep I have that are not of this fold.” (John 10:16) It was a reminder that there are people of other folds, of other religions, of other communities who belong to Jesus the Christ. Our job is to receive those who would come join us and not to condemn the ones who have other ways and other paths of being Christ-like.


Part of the reason this is important is because it affects our own spirituality. Here’s my theory: the same way that we treat people who are different or foreign to us out there is the same way that we are going to treat the parts of ourselves, inside ourselves, that are different and foreign.


You know, we are really quite complicated beings. There are parts of ourselves, each and every one of us, that we do not know, parts of ourselves that we do not understand, parts of ourselves that have not become Christian yet and may never become Christian. Carl Sandburg used to say: “There is a zoo in me.” Whatever way we treat those people out there that we consider different or foreign is the same way that we will treat that which is different or foreign within ourselves, within our complicated selves.


If we cannot tolerate and love difference and diversity in the world around us and find Christ there, we will be unable to tolerate and love that which is different and foreign within ourselves and we will not be able to find Christ in those parts of ourselves either.


So our calling is to go out into the world and to love people, to listen to people, to understand people, to find Christ in people and then to extend a warm invitation to any who would join us in the church and in this particular path of the Christian, of the Godly journey. It is also our job to go into the nations inside ourselves, to try to love and understand the nations within our souls, to find Christ there and to make a disciple of my own very self.