by Rich A Rosendahl
There are countless churches and organizations across America that have programs teaching people how to evangelize others into their version of Christianity, some that I have participated in. These groups are typically focused on the idea of trying to follow what is called ‘the Great Commission’ of Jesus, but in practice, the attitudes and actions of these organizations can sometimes produce a form of (American) Christian Supremacy.
I remember one of the first organizations like this that I was part of. The goal was to learn about people from another religion through the perspective of Christianity. Think about that a sec, learning about people who follow another religion, not directly from them and their perspective, but from the perspective we already had? This is at a minimum foolish, maybe even arrogant, why would we think our perspective somehow overrides those who actually follow their own religion?
With this organization, I also discovered that ‘through a Christian perspective’ meant that people were being taught how the other religion was wrong in areas where they believed Christianity was right. This was accompanied with an emphasis on how to debate or argue when these differences came up in conversations via some of the more common apologetic practices. Which unfortunately, can include techniques used to manipulate conversations and therefore people.
These two common approaches to the Great Commission alone - learning about another religion from a Christian perspective (not from those who follow it) and learning how to argue or debate why Christianity is right and the other religion is wrong – can create an almost instant posture of superiority. We are right, they are wrong. We have truth, they do not.
This occurs, in part, because of the often imbalanced or inaccurate understanding in American Christianity of ‘truth’. The bible talks about how those who follow it will discover ‘a truth’, however, it does not say that a person who follows it will become an expert on ‘truth’ in all matters. For example, regardless of how much knowledge I have of the bible, Christian theologies or Jesus, it will not somehow mean I understand what it's like to be Black, Female, Muslim or LGBTQ in America. To better understand those issues, I must have the willingness to learn elsewhere.
When a lack of humility is combined with the modern interpretation of the Great Commission, it can lead to a lot of hurtful, even hateful attitudes and actions toward others. The most common being a rejection of those who are different, especially those who didn’t accept the beliefs expressed through evangelism.
But didn’t Jesus say via the Great Commission to go and make disciples? Of course he did. However, to assume that these modern American Evangelical practices are somehow fulfilling the Great Commission requires a pretty remarkable theological leap.
Think about it like this, Jesus was born a Jew to a Jewish family, so why didn’t he follow that same model we see today and seek to reform Judaism while trying to make Jewish disciples? Instead, Jesus often met with those who were considered outsiders, not to flaunt a truth and position himself as superior, but to be humbled before them with a posture of lifegiving Love. Jesus met people right where they were and talked a lot about an all-inclusive kingdom, he did not try to convince people to join the religion he was part of.
Things sure have changed since then.
Now we have workbooks, DVD’s, webinars, speakers who travel circuits, pastors and so many others who are creating an evangelical environment that can naturally produce an attitude of superiority over others. There are even websites that track the progress of how effectively people around the world are being evangelized, in an attempt to fulfill evangelical’s version of the Great Commission. The website breaks groups of people down by language, geography and more, like some strange and involuntary science experiment. Others are treated like projects, not people.
In some cases, American Evangelicalism has created a version of Christian Supremacy over ‘the other’, that is surely the exact opposite of what Jesus intended when he spoke of the Great Commission.
So what did Jesus mean when he said to go and make disciples? I have no idea, I am not sure any of us really do and I am perfectly ok with that. I mean think about all the books written about the different ways of making disciples. Think about all the talks given on what it means to even become a disciple. There are so many interpretations of this, not to mention, all the different denominations or sects that add a specific belief system for someone to become or make a disciple in their traditions.
What Jesus meant by becoming a disciple and making disciples is not as black and white as it has been portrayed by much of American Evangelicalism . And with the sometimes resulting Christian Supremacy, quite frankly, it may be time for some individuals and organizations to put a hard pause on trying to live out the Great Commission altogether.
In the meantime, Jesus gave another command that is much more clear, and according to him, more important. It’s the foundation for following Jesus, especially at a time when the misuse of his Great Commission can often cause so much harm. It’s simple, yet challenging, and has the potential to change everything – Love your Neighbor.