I have a friend whom I have not seen for more than 40 years. I am not sure whether I could recognise him if I met him today. Mr Viggo Sogaard spent many years as a missionary in Thailand before pursuing his Masters at Wheaton College and doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary. We were part of a cross-Asia pioneering group of Christians interested in communications and media studies. At a conference in Hong Kong, in mid-1970, Viggo painted a picture of how evangelism has gone wrong in many middle-class churches.
We have a priceless Gospel. God loves the world, and this message and its eternal benefit is meant to be shared with others, including people who may come from poorer backgrounds.
While Christians have come up with innovative methods to share the Good News – consider the ‘Gospel Bridge Illustration’, ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’, ‘I’ve found it’, evangelistic crusades, and now the Alpha course – we might have been less than successful in helping poorer people understand and accept the Good News, and we might have missed out on introducing such people to the fellowship of the church where we gather for worship.
Viggo told us that the way we offer the message of salvation to poorer people is like offering food to fish, but keeping the food in a bottle. We entice the fish without giving them direct access to the food. The fish can see the food but cannot benefit from it. The bottle, no matter how well-designed and how expensive it is, has become a barrier.
What Viggo warned us about some 40 years ago may still be valid. The Good News of Jesus may be trapped by the bottle that is making it extremely difficult for more people to reach it. The “bottle” could be the expensive church building, and the way it has been designed for membership comfort, or to keep others out. It could also be a long list of policies governing the use of the “church”, making it almost impossible for the church building to be used for other outreach ministries, or as a place of refuge for migrant workers who may need somewhere to sleep when the haze is at a dangerous level.
More worrisome is the fact that the bottle is often more subtle than the way we “do church”. It could be the value systems, informed more by earthly concerns than Christian teachings, that dominate our conversations: We talk about and compare notes regarding tuition for our children, the make of the cars we own or wish to purchase, the holiday we took when we went to Dubrovnik or Durban, the premier schools we attended, social events at our club, the branded clothes we wear and buy for our children, or the restaurants we favour.
The subjects of our conversations with friends reflect the middle-class values we hold. Though there is no ill-intention to exclude others, these topics become the invisible “barriers” we put up that put off visitors, especially those people who attended neighbourhood schools, live in an older HDB estate, who watch Channel 8 drama, whose dream of owning a car is just a dream, who may receive pink invoices from Singapore Power for a few months of unpaid bills with a threat to cut off power supply, whose children may not have regular meals, let alone meals with enough meat and vegetables.
Watch your bottle. The Good News is meant for all. The local church must be a barrier-free community that welcomes anyone who names Jesus as Lord and Saviour, and no one should be made to feel like an unwanted foreigner – intentionally or unintentionally – in a place meant for forgiven sinners to congregate for worship and to call home.
The Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon –
who did his doctoral studies in Social Ethics is a Pastor at Christalite Methodist Chapel, a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College and the Chairperson of the Methodist Welfare Services.
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