We are not automatically Christian

In his book Christianity Rediscovered, Catholic missionary Fr. Vincent Donovan, who died in 2000, describes his work in the late-’60s and early-’70s among a large semi-nomadic ethnic group known as the Masai in East Africa.

After much soul-searching, he decided to throw out the textbooks on “how to do missions”—whose theories had failed to produce converts to Christianity among the Masai for more than a century—and simply present to them the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He describes great success—and failure. After spending a year with one particular Masai community, patiently telling a people who had no prior exposure to Christianity what Christianity was all about, they reached a moment of decision: would they or would they not accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and be baptized? He gave them a week to decide. When he returned the following week, the elders in the village said, “No. Thank you, but no. We don’t want to follow Jesus.”

He was devastated at first. Upon further reflection, he wrote:

Perhaps the most important lesson I was ever to learn in my missionary life, I learned that day: that Christianity, by its very essence, is a message that can be accepted—or rejected; that somewhere close to the heart of Christianity lies that terrible and mysterious possibility of rejection; that no Christianity has any meaning or value, if there is not freedom to accept it or reject it. It is not an automatic thing, coming like a diploma after four or eight years of schooling and examinations, or after one year of instruction. It must be presented in such a way that rejection of it remains a distinct possibility. The acceptance of it would be meaningless if rejection were not possible. It is a call, an invitation, a challenge even, that can always be refused. The Christianity of a born Catholic or of a produced Catholic (the result of an automatic baptism following a set period of instructions) which is never once left open to the freedom of rejection, to the understanding that it is a thing freely accepted or rejected—is a dead and useless thing.”

These words convict me. His words regarding “born” or automatically “produced” Catholics apply equally to our Methodist tradition—and indeed most of the universal Church. At some level, in one way or another, we must make the Christian faith our own. We must accept it or reject it—consciously, sincerely, and deliberately. The Christian faith is always one generation away from extinction. Our children cannot inherit it, nor can they automatically receive it—even if they go through the motions of Sunday school and confirmation class.

Do we Christian parents feel the weight of that responsibility? Do we the Church—pastors, youth ministers, Sunday school teachers, and other laypeople—feel it?

Of course, living in a predominantly Christian culture—or even in what might be called a “post-Christian” culture shaped, even unconsciously, by Christian ideals or values—is different from living in a culture previously untouched by the gospel. In what ways, I wonder, does that make our challenge greater? After all, as secularized as our culture is—and even though a relatively small proportion of the population goes to church regularly—a vast majority of Americans still say that they are Christians. What does that mean?

These are some things I’m thinking about as I prepare this sermon series on salvation. This Sunday we’re talking about “getting started” in the faith—what, in other contexts, might be called justification, new birth, conversion, accepting Christ, or even more bluntly, “getting saved.”

I hope it will be a valuable message for people who haven’t yet made a decision for Christ as well as those of us who are already Christians.

Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1978), 82.

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