There is nothing wrong with sending off missionaries to evangelize non-Christian countries or to evangelize non-Christians in Christian countries.
But there is a common practice of some Protestants sending missionaries to countries which are predominantly Catholic or Orthodox, and actively trying to convert people who are already Christians (Catholic or Orthodox).
For example, in January 2009, I found this on a Protestant website (connected with e3 ministries):
Just imagine…true Christianity has only existed in the nation of Ecuador for just over 100 years; and less than 1% of those who live in this South American Country know Jesus Christ personally.
The need is for new, disciple-making churches! There are communities averaging 3000 residents in the Manabi Province, that currently have no church whatsover. Please come with us to share the Gospel, and behold the wonder of the birth of these new faith communities!
I did a little Web surfing; apparently, Ecuador has been a Roman Catholic country since the days the Spaniards first arrived. I found this:
The Roman Catholic Church in Ecuador is part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope and curia in Rome.
It is one of the most Catholic countries in the world – around 12 million out of a total population of 13 million profess the Catholic faith. Catholicism was introduced in the 1530s and the first diocese was erected in 1545.
Highly influential during colonial period, the Church was practically enslaved by constitution enacted (1824) after independence from Spain. –From http://www.mundoandino.com/Ecuador/Roman-Catholicism-in-Ecuador, site no longer extant
These particular Protestant groups don’t consider the Catholic and Orthodox to be truly Christian. No, I am NOT attacking a straw man: I was Protestant for more than 30 years. In my own childhood denomination, I was taught this. I heard the same thing in an Evangelical church which I attended in the early 2000s. You can also find it prevalent in the Left Behind novels.
The problem is, I’m now hearing from Catholic or Orthodox people who live in those countries, and they’re not happy. Established churches consider it to be “invading their turf” or “stepping on their toes.”
Russia was Christianized 1000 years ago; the Orthodox Church is still there, still predominant among Christian groups, and still considers itself part of Russian ethnic identity (p. 15, Presbyterians Today, April 2006).
70% of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, though church authorities estimate that only 3-4 % participate actively in church life. Baptists and Pentecostals are the largest Protestant churches in Russia and have been growing. (ibid)
I don’t know if the practice of individual churches follows this, but the PCUSA as a whole does its mission work with established churches in Russia: Orthodox, Lutheran and Baptist (ibid).
I’m told, through Internet forums, that there are people in the former Soviet Union who will “convert” weekly to please whatever Protestant missionaries are there that week, because they get “free stuff,” such as free lunches or T-shirts. The missionaries don’t follow up or, in most cases, even know Russian, so they think they’ve made real converts.
For thorough and enlightening critiques, see The Battle for Russia’s Souls and Mission in Post-Perestroika Russia.
I have heard charges that the Orthodox church is pagan, that the Catholic church is not really Christian. Yet these churches sometimes charge Protestant churches with the same thing.
Believers in predominantly Catholic countries, such as in Latin America, have problems with Protestant missionaries as well. One Orthodox convert reports that she once went on a mission trip to Mexico, thinking they’d be helping the poor; instead, she felt “frustrated, disgusted and used” because the trip ended up being about converting Catholic children to Protestantism.
A young Brazilian woman told me that churches in Brazil have begun turning out American and even European missionaries, claiming that the American church is destroyed and Americans ruin churches. Brazilian churches started by American churches have been left on their own when their “mother” church failed.
A woman in my church who has done mission work says that she’s seen people try to evangelize Muslims on their holy days, such as during Ramadan! This is disrespectful, to say the least, and does not make Christians/Christianity attractive to Muslims! [Note 5/24/15: I don’t recall if this woman was in the PCUSA or Orthodox church.]
I’ve also heard from an Orthodox friend that the Russian Church is proclaiming missionaries–the ones who proclaim the Rapture of the Church is coming–to be apostates, preaching a different Christ than the Orthodox preach, because Christ would not steal people away from his people. This different Christ is seen as “buddy Christ.” (One such critique of evangelicalism is here, “The Right Answer.”)
From The Greek Orthodox Church/Faith, History, and Practice by Demetrios J. Constantelos, published by The Seabury Press, page 69-70:
While the [Orthodox] Church does not preach the gospel among people where Christ is accepted, there are every year numerous converts from various Christian bodies in such countries as Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States of America. These converts choose the Orthodox faith freely and willingly….
Today there is an ever increasing zeal for missionary activity in non-Christian territories.
Unlike some denominations that make every effort to convert other Christians to their creeds, the Greek Church follows St. Paul, who said:
‘I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation: but as it is written, to whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand’ (Rom. 15:20-21).
It is indeed unfortunate that there are Christian groups which send missionaries to such Christian countries as Greece.
Professor Edward Jurji, of Princeton Theological Seminary, speaking of some missions in the Middle East, admitted that they are successful in converting only a few Christians to their denominations while they fail to convert non-Christians.
Our friends of such misinformed groups must take heed lest the words of Christ apply to them: ‘Woe unto you…for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves’ (Matt. 23:15).
Now this is not to say that the Orthodox consider other denominations to be of Satan. Rather, this demonstrates how Protestant proselytizing upsets the Orthodox in countries which are predominantly Orthodox.
Catholic proselytizing has also been done in Orthodox countries in the past. And I’d expect that Catholics feel the same about Protestant proselytizing in Latin America.
What should we take away from this? I think we should follow the PCUSA practice of working with local churches when doing mission or evangelization trips, rather than trying to set up new churches or make converts from already Christian groups. Local holy days should be respected, whether they’re Orthodox, Catholic or Muslim holy days.
And, if it’s an evangelization trip and not just a trip to help build houses or hand out food, the missionaries should know the language and follow up with the converts later.
You’ll note that in the Early Church, the apostles established churches, put someone in charge who knew the doctrine, and regularly visited or had someone visit the churches. The new churches weren’t allowed to just die.
Priest Stephen Freeman, “Mission and Evangelism from the Fathers to the Present”
Written probably in 2006/2007
Index to my theology/church opinion pages:
–End Times and Christian Zionism
–God’s Purpose/Supremacy of God Doctrine
–Cat and Dog Theology
–Raising One’s Hands in Worship
–On the “still, small voice” and Charismatic sign gifts
–On church buildings
–The Message Bible
–The Purpose-Driven Life
–The Relevance Doctrine, i.e. Marketing Churches to Seekers
–The idea that God has someone in mind for you
–Literalism in Biblical interpretation
–Name it and Claim It Doctrine, Prosperity Doctrine, Faith-Formula Theology, Word-Faith Theology, Positive Confession Theology, Health and Wealth Gospel, and whatever else they call it
–More about Pat Robertson
–Dr. Richard Eby and others who claim to have been to Heaven
–Women in Marriage/the Church
–Why do bad things happen?
–Should we criticize our brethren’s artistic or evangelistic attempts? Or, how should we evangelize, then?
–Angels: Is “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti a divine revelation or fiction?
–Halloween: Not the Devil’s Holiday!
–Hell and the Nature of God
–Is Christmas/Easter a Pagan Holiday?
–Is everybody going to Hell except Christians?
–How could a loving God who prohibits murder, command the genocide of the Canaanite peoples?
–What about predestination?
–Musings on Sin, Salvation and Discipleship
–An Ancient View which is in the Bible, yet new to the west–Uncreated Energies of God
–Technical Virginity–i.e., how far should a Christian single go?
–Are Spiritual Marriages “real”? (also in “Life” section, where it’s more likely to be updated)
–Does the Pill cause abortions, or is that just another weird Internet or extremist right-wing rumor?
–What about Missional Churches, Simple Churches, Fluid Churches, Organic Churches, House Churches or Neighborhood Churches?
–Is Wine from the Devil–or a Gift from God?
–What is Worship?
–Evangelistic Trips to Already Christianized Countries
–Fraternities, Sororities, Masonic Lodge
–Was Cassie Bernall a Martyr?
–Some Awesome Things heard in the Lamentations Service (Good Friday evening) during Holy Week
Phariseeism in the Church