The place was Badajoz, Spain, the time about 15 years ago. I was at that time missionary-pastor of the local Baptist church, back when there was still a place for that type of assignment within IMB strategy. We were hosting a few volunteer workers from the States, and that night they wanted to eat hamburgers, so I took them to the local Burger King and ordered their food for them in Spanish. As we were waiting in line, speaking to each other in English, the store manager took notice and started up a conversation with us in broken English. He told us he was interested in improving his English and had always wanted to visit the States.
I immediately perked up. For American missionaries in a place like Spain, conversations like that are a natural cue of a possible open door for developing a redemptive relationship, with hopes that it may lead to further opportunities for sharing the gospel. With just such a thought in mind, over the next couple of months my family and I made a point to visit Burger King from time to time, looking for opportunities to continue the conversation and develop the budding friendship with the manager. We were pleasantly surprised as each time we came in it seemed he was friendlier and more open to us than ever. In a place like Spain, this is somewhat unusual, as we are frequently confused with various cult groups, and there is often a lot of skepticism toward Evangelicals in general, and American missionaries in particular.
As the friendship developed, the time eventually came when we invited him and his family to our home for a meal. We were excited. In a place like Spain, friendship evangelism is, along with various other responsibilities, what missionary ministry is all about, and this appeared to be a golden opportunity for doing exactly what we felt we were there to do.
So a few days later, the time arrived for our new friends to come over to eat. We wanted everything to be just right. We made sure we had some age-appropriate toys for their kids to play with. We put our dog safely away in a back room so no one would be frightened. We even thought about what we would offer them to drink. Since in Spain inviting guests over for a meal and not offering them wine or beer is looked on as culturally unusual, and potentially rude, we were a bit nervous about this. But as IMB missionaries, who do not partake in alcoholic beverages, we were used to dealing with this. We would just offer them a coke, and trust they wouldn’t be offended, cutting us some slack as culturally unsavvy Americans.
Much to our surprise, though, each time we offered them coffee, tea, and/or a soft drink, they politely refused. Finally, they suggested that a glass of milk might be a good alternative. We were perfectly pleased to accommodate them, but by this time were thinking to ourselves, “These people are not like any Spaniards we have ever met before.” As the conversation progressed, however, the missing pieces of the puzzle finally began to come together, as they explained to us that they were Mormons, and the teachings of their religion didn’t permit them to partake of caffeine or soft drinks.
By this time I was thinking, “No problem, David. We will maybe need to adjust our tack a little bit, but Mormons need Christ just like other Spaniards. We will continue to try to befriend them, and, little by little, share the love of Christ and the gospel with them, just as before.”
But as the evening progressed, even more information came to light. Not only were they Mormons, they were leaders in the local Mormon congregation, and had come to our home that evening with the intention of making a proposal. As they explained it, they knew that people in Badajoz were not generally receptive to their efforts at direct evangelism, so they thought they should spend more time and effort in social ministry. And since, we, as Christians, and fellow members of a religious minority, were also involved in social ministry, they suggested we put our heads together and come up with a project for doing community social ministry together.
I said a quick silent prayer: “Lord, give me wisdom and tact in how I respond.” I explained to them that we were thrilled to have them in our home, and we would love to continue the friendship on a personal level, but that, as far as any type of official collaboration between our two “churches” was concerned, we would have to decline. That, for us, would entail compromise on our essential beliefs. Upon saying this, the atmosphere immediately changed. Although they were always polite with us, from that time on, it became increasingly evident they had little interest in continuing the friendship.
That episode in my missionary ministry got me to thinking. Why was it that the Mormons in a place like Badajoz, Spain were interested in collaborating with us as Baptists in social ministry? Fairly simple. There is strength in numbers. For them, collaborating with us would help to bolster their image in the community as religiously tolerant and open-minded people, who were interested in helping others and doing good. For us, as Baptists and as Evangelicals, though, it would accomplish just the opposite. It would only help to further cement the false impressions of many people in Spanish society that there was no practical difference between us and the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cult groups, and would water down and distort our faithful gospel witness.
I share this story, however, not just to share some insight into everyday ministry on the foreign mission field, but as a sort of a parable. Back about 40 years ago, a very similar encounter (if not a literal one, a symbolic one, comprised perhaps of many smaller literal ones) took place in the United States. The so-called “Moral Majority” (and similar organizations) sought to facilitate the friendship and cooperation of Evangelicals not only with Mormons, but also with Catholics, Jews, and various others of morally upright and family-friendly convictions. In this case, however, from what I have gathered, it was mostly Evangelicals, not Mormons, who took the initiative at proposing and promoting the alliance.
From a certain perspective, there was good reason for this. There is indeed strength in numbers. There is a much better chance to accomplish your goals as a “moral majority” than as a “faithful minority.” The whole co-belligerence thing.
Fast-forward forty years, though, and we must ask ourselves what we have gained as a result. The answer? Along with a few elections won here and there, and a smattering of bills passed on this or that along the way, a very good chance that in a little more than a year from now the United States will elect its first Mormon president. And even if Mitt Romney doesn’t win the election (or the Republican nomination), the Mormons have already pulled off a worldwide publicity coup through all the press (positive, negative, or neutral) they are receiving as a result of his campaign.
In places like Spain, the fact that conservative Evangelicals are seen as forming part of the same coalition as people like Romney only serves to confirm the presuppositions of most that, basically, we are all birds of a feather. More than this, it gives local Mormon missionaries a seat at the conversation table in the public square they have never had before. Though comparatively few Spaniards (or people from many other countries) know very much about Glenn Beck, Jon Huntsman, Orrin Hatch, or Harry Reid, clever Mormons will be ready to pull these names out from up their sleeves to further their proselytizing interests, whenever the opportunity presents itself. With one of their own as President, the opportunities for serving up a powerful public relations punch will multiply. It’s only natural. Even our fellow Baptists in many places around the world in which they are a small minority often do the very same thing with the names of Martin Luther King, Jimmy Carter, and (with a bit more hesitancy) Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
My purpose in writing this post is not to campaign for or against any one political candidate. For all I know, Romney may well be the best and most viable alternative social/fiscal conservatives and values-driven moralists have on issues such as the economy, abortion, definition of marriage, etc. in the upcoming elections. When the time comes to vote, I will do my best to evaluate and compare the positions of each of the various candidates and pull the lever for the one whose views come closest to my own.
My point is that we as Evangelicals must be wise stewards with the opportunities God gives us to make an impact for the advance of the Kingdom of God (i.e. the fulfillment of the Great Commission) on this earth. We can spend the talents God gives us on winning political elections and culture wars or we can spend them on preaching the gospel, making disciples, planting churches, and lovingly serving the needy in our midst. We may well help the Republican Party to regain the White House and at the same time lose some strategic ground in maintaining an uncompromised platform for a pure proclamation of the gospel, both on the home front as well as around the world.
It is true that there is a time, as Christians, for co-belligerence. But we must remember that, as Christians, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). And in the war we fight, those who are not truly with us, are, at the bottom line, against us (Matthew 12:30).
Though people like Ed Dobson, Cal Thomas, Erwin Lutzer, John MacArthur, James Davison Hunter, and even yours truly have already warned us about the lure of thinking we can change the world through politics, there is nothing like an upcoming American presidential election to capture the imagination of Evangelicals and once again get us distracted and sidetracked from the main thing God has called us to do.
It remains to be seen what the next year of American politics will bring, and, potentially, after that, what a Mormon presidency would mean for us as Evangelicals and for the advance of the Kingdom of God. Come what may, though, let’s do our best to stay focused on the gospel.