top of page
  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Christian Mission and the Tradition of Identification

The Christian Church has a long history of mission in diverse cultures, beginning with the Apostles spreading the Gospel from their Jewish contexts to the Greek world around them. In the intervening 2,000 years, the Church has provided countless examples of how the Gospel can spread to other cultures and warnings of how the Gospel and cultures have been corrupted by well-intentioned missionaries. Learning this history is essential, not only to see what works and what does not but also to understand the story God has been telling in other cultures long before modern missionaries reach their shores.

Classifying lands like Africa and Asia as “unreached peoples” is inaccurate in light of mission history. Even countries with a small Christian minority have a history with the Gospel dating back to the time of the Apostles. Tradition speaks of Mark going to Egypt, Thomas’ ministry and martyrdom in India, Philip’s work in Africa, and Peter and Paul in Europe [1]. Modern missionaries must reject a narrative that they are taking their Gospel to people who do not have it. They are taking the Gospel to a culture that has a history of wrestling with the Gospel. The primary issue in countries with Christian minorities missionaries face is the possible damage done by previous missionary efforts. Missionaries stepping into a new context have an opportunity to identify with the story God has been telling amidst a people group.

In the history of Christian mission, the key element found in successful mission work is the missionaries’ identification with the people they are ministering to. Numerous examples can be cited to demonstrate the success of identification such as Pentecost, St. Patrick in Ireland [2], Hudson Taylor in China [3], the inculturation practices of the Jesuits [4], and the translation of Scripture into vernacular languages by Protestants [5]. Such approaches “required deliberate engagement with aspects of indigenous cultures, and an attempt to transmit the Gospel in cultural forms familiar to ordinary people” [6]. The success of missionary work is often based on the missionaries ability to identify him or herself with the culture they are witnessing to.

Liberti Center City and Main Line in Philadelphia, PA inherits the beauty of missions from the Christian tradition, specifically the practice of identification. Liberti explains its vision to be “a church that would be for Philadelphia: that would love Philadelphia, seek to serve its needs, and would be a place in which people unfamiliar with Christianity could explore the reality of Jesus in a way that [makes] sense” [7]. In a recent interview at Western Seminary, founding and preaching pastor, Jared Ayers, explained Liberti’s approach as “seeker comprehensible”. Rather than jettison historic Christian worship and preaching in order to be “seeker sensitive”, Liberti practices Christian worship and preaching in a traditional manner, but is careful to explain what is occurring and avoids Christian jargon. He says, “We do the normal ‘church things’, but for people without the Christian vocabulary”. The goal is to present the Gospel in a way that engages center city skeptics who have never encountered Christian faith before [8].

While Liberti has followed the Christian tradition of putting down roots in a neighborhood and identifying with the people there, the demographic Liberti relates to is limited to center city skeptics. These are typically white, middle-upper class individuals in a diverse city with a large African-American population and deep poverty. Liberti does work to show the love of Jesus to those in need through thoughtful ministries such as Emmanuel which serves individuals experiencing homelessness. Each of these ministries practices seeker comprehensibility, but identification is limited and individuals who have encountered the love of Jesus through these ministries do not always find a home in Sunday morning worship and the life of the church. Liberti can begin to think about how it can integrate the work it does in each ministry and find ways to bring diverse individuals into the one life of the Church.

Such examples of identification refute the claim that Christian missionaries are colonizers bent on destroying indigenous cultures. While instances such as the Crusades [9] and 15th-16th Century exploration [10] are certainly blights on the Church, the majority of mission history has identified with indigenous peoples. “Unlike traders, colonists, soldiers, and other western adventurers, a major priority of missionaries was the spiritual and physical welfare of indigenous peoples” [11].

In fact, there have been those missionaries who resisted the work of colonialization. During the days of exploration when European explorers used physical violence to force the indigenous peoples of the Americas to convert, Dominican priests opposed them. The spokesman of these Dominicans, Father Antonio de Montecinos, preached in 1511 that the colonists were “living in mortal sin” and he “threatened to withhold the sacrament of communion from slaveholders” [12]. Bartolomé de las Casas, an early settler, documented the abuses of the settlers and reported them to government officials and the Pope. After each trip to Europe, he returned with more authority to protect the Indians, eventually becoming a bishop. His lobbying led to the New Laws in 1542-1543 that began to free indigenous peoples from forced labor [13].

Christian missionaries have also championed on behalf of women. Missionaries in Somalia have worked with Muslim leaders to end the practice of female genital mutilation [14]. Medical care has also led to the end or decline of foot-binding, child marriage, social customs of rape, and abuse [15]. Women missionaries have been able to provide medical care to other women who cannot receive treatment from male doctors [16]. Missionaries have also created schools for girls, improving the status of women through education [17]. As missionaries identify with the cultures they minister in, they earn the trust of people to bring needed change to societies while respecting the culture and championing against their exploitation.

Mission work at its best stands alongside the people it serves. The Gospel finds a hearing when the people themselves along with their values, cultures, and needs are taken seriously. The people are free to take the Gospel for themselves and to see how it answers their needs, strengthens what is good about their culture, and confronts the brokenness in all societies. Missionaries serve in the manner of Jesus, who became just like His creation in order to redeem His people. Any attempt to impose the Gospel from without fails to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who identified with humanity, made His home on Earth, and loved the world around Him.


Crusades: holy wars intended to regain Christian from Muslim countries, specifically the Holy Land and Jerusalem.

Exploration: Portuguese and Spanish travelers “discovering” new lands and receiving rights to the land in exchange for evangelizing the native persons [18].

Identification: the missionary becomes part of the community and considers her or himself one of the people [19].

Inculturation: a Jesuit practice of “adapting themselves to the cultures they went to serve” [20].

Seeker Comprehensibility: practices historic Christian faith in a manner that is clear and welcoming to people outside the Christian faith [21].

Seeker Sensitive: an attempt at making Sunday morning worship feel as comfortable as possible for people outside the Christian faith.

Vernacularization: Reformation ideal of translating the Bible into native languages [22].

[1] Dana L. Roberts, Christian Mission, p. 15.

[2] Ibid. p. 154.

[3] Ibid. p. 61.

[4] Ibid. p. 38.

[5] Ibid. p. 35.

[6] Ibid. p. 38.

[7] "Our Story." Liberti Church. Accessed May 04, 2018.

[8] Jared Ayers, Interview with Chuck DeGroat, “Episode 2.4: Seeker Comprehensibility”, The Luxcast, podcast audio, May 22, 2017,

[9] Roberts, Christian Mission, p. 24.

[10] Ibid. pp. 28-30.

[11] Ibid. p. 99.

[12] Ibid. p. 100.

[13] Ibid. p. 100-101.

[14] Ibid. p. 131-132.

[15] Ibid. p. 133.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p. 136.

[18] Ibid. p. 29.

[19] Ibid. p. 154.

[20] Ibid. p. 38.

[21] Jared Ayers, Interview with Chuck DeGroat, “Episode 2.4: Seeker Comprehensibility”, The Luxcast, podcast audio, May 22, 2017,

[22] Roberts, p. 35.

10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page