Vincent Donovan on what the job of a missionary is and isn’t

Last year, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Vincent Donovan’s excellent book Christianity Rediscovered. It is one of the very best books I have read concerning cross-cultural mission work. I am now re-reading it, and will probably be sharing a few excerpts from it in the coming weeks.

Donovan was a missionary to the Masai people of Tanzania, east Africa. In the following excerpt from pages 23 and 24, he discusses the convictions he came to regarding what should and should not be the work of a missionary. I have been challenged a lot by the ideas he shares. I, too, have a growing conviction that we missionaries are messengers. Our responsibility is to deliver the message, not dictate the response to that message. Here’s what Donovan has to say:

Going back to the New Testament, to that original mandate which sent missionaries all over the world, we find the command of Christ to preach the gospel to all the nations of the world, to disciple, make disciples of, to evangelize all the nations. The words used in the Greek Testament for “all the nations” are panta ta ethne. In fact, every time it is mentioned the word “nations” is translated by the Greek word ethne. I do not believe that the bible knew of nations in the modern political sense of the word, like the nations of America and Canada and Tanzania.Ethne would refer more to ethnic, cultural groups, the natural building blocks of the human race. While the political nation of the United States might have very little to do with salvation as such, the Masai culture or a Hindu culture or the cultures that make up America might have very much to do with salvation…

…The gospel must be brought to the nations in which already resides the possibility of salvation. As I began to ponder the evangelization of the Masai, I had to realize that God enables a people, any people, to reach salvation through their culture and tribal, racial customs and traditions. In this realization would have to rest my whole approach to the evangelization of the Masai.

I had no right to disrupt this body of customs, of traditions. It was the way of Salvation for these people, their way to God. It was one of the nations to whom we had to bring the gospel–bring the gospel to it as it was. In those customs lay their possibility of salvation.

Christ himself said, “I did not come to do away with the law (the Jewish culture and religion) but to fulfill it” (Mt 5:17).

Everything concerning a nation (an ethnic cultural group) has to do with salvation. It is the job of the people of that nation, it is their affair to respond to their own call of salvation. It is not the sphere of the evangelist, of the missionary. If we would be consistent, I think we would see that the field of culture is theirs. Ours is the gospel.

An evangelist, a missionary must respect the culture of a people, not destroy it. The incarnation of the gospel, the flesh and blood which must grow in the gospel is up to the people of a culture.

The way people might celebrate the central truths of Christianity; the way they would distribute the goods of the earth and live out their daily lives; their spiritual, ascetical expression of Christianity if they should accept it; their way of working out the Christian responsibility of the social implications of the gospel–all these things, that is, liturgy, morality, dogmatic theology, spirituality, and social action would be a cultural response to a central, unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel.

The gospel is, after all, not a philosophy or set of doctrines or laws. That is what a culture is. The gospel is essentially a history, at whose center is the God-man born in Bethlehem, risen near Golgotha.