No. 1 - 31 March 1999

Dear friends,

This conversational letter called the Ecumenical Letter on Evangelism has served over several decades to transmit reflections on evangelism from an ecumenical perspective. What has distinguished it, it seems to me, has been the way in which the writers of the Letter treated multi-faceted understandings of and issues in evangelism with a sense of personal convictions. Even as they provoked our thinking on one or another theme - letter after lette - they also transmitted something about themselves and we sensed that they seemed willing to be held accountable for their views.

Most recently it was the Rev. Samuel Ada who, as my predecessor in the WCC's responsibility for engaging with the churches in questions of evangelism, carried this tradition forward in his own animated and thoughtful way. The collection of letters that Sam produced - especially on such issues as common witness and aspects of the ecumenical study on gospel and cultures - have been appreciated widely. Now that I take over this task, I want to express the thanks of the Ecumenical Letter on Evangelism's readership for Sam's very pertinent reflections and to commend him for making the Letter a useful contact point for a network on evangelism.

For those of you who do not know me, let me say a word about myself. My name is Ana Langerak, and I hail from Costa Rica. I am the happy product of three cultures and a mix of training and work experience which includes mission and evangelism, teaching, advocacy, and responsibility for ecumenical organizations and programmes. I can truly say that an awareness of the Christian vocation has accompanied me since childhood and that, as I journeyed through different contexts (Western Europe, USA, and Latin America), this has prompted me to live out the faith through spiritualities of compassion and enablement in situations of injustice. I count it a blessing to have served as a missionary in Nicaragua during the civil war there, and to have been presented for ordination to ministry in the Lutheran Church of Costa Rica after years of "independent life."

In the WCC, I am now embarked on my third specific assignment which is, as a member of the team on Mission and Evangelism, to focus on the churches' ministry in evangelism. I see my task primarily as that of identifying - together with the churches, other partners and colleagues - the enormous energies, challenges, hopes and resources for evangelism, and to engage with them so that we might together discern directions for authentic witness to the gospel.

In this Letter I would like to talk a bit about evangelism and women's concerns. The idea to address this theme comes from two sources. One, a negative one, is the disturbing notion that evangelism and the women's agenda are somehow apart or even rivals. The other, a positive one, is the desire to look at evangelism as a ministry that addresses the broken-heartedness of women and, in so doing, contributes to the love chain that works for wholeness in the world.

Who has not heard the accusation that evangelism is the subtle (or even aggressive) means of domesticating women? Much in the same way that in recent years evangelism has come under judgment for its role in suppressing indigenous cultures and imposing inappropriate thought patterns and religious practices on them, so now there are those who accuse evangelism of alienating women from their legitimate interests. Evangelization, they hold, is an unwelcome means of bolstering the patriarchal structures of church and society, and it serves mainly to "keep women in their place."

In a similar way, the furtherance of the cause of women is viewed in some quarters to be an agenda that stands over-against the call of the churches to share the Good News. Women's issues and women's aspirations are considered to be one thing and evangelism quite another. We can be encouraged by the fact that quite a number of churches have taken important steps to address past and present wrongs in evangelism. Among these efforts, very justly, there are processes of repentance and restoration having to do with indigenous peoples. So, maybe the lines of tension here are resolving somewhat. But the inter-relationship between women's concerns and evangelism continues to be problematic. Let me illustrate with a few examples how these tensions are played out:

Now, how do we begin to address the challenges we face here, both the real issues and the perceived ones? It would be good if we could start by stating some essential theological convictions. First, we would have to say that, if the good news is the announcement of God's liberating desire and activity for the whole of creation, it is especially the good news that women are created in the image and likeness of God and, as such, absolutely beloved. Then, as far as the actual practice of evangelism is concerned, we would want to say that unless the gospel is discerned, lifted up, announced and applied prophetically in the context of everyday experiences - including the situation of discrimination and violence that is the lot of most women - then we do not have gospel but only abstract ideas, comforting or alienating religiousness or dogmas devoid of life. And thirdly, we should state quite clearly that, in regard to the justice-driven aspirations and concerns of women, faith in Christ and sharing of the life that God communicates are not rivals, but even friends in revealing God's intention for wholeness.

Of course, there are very good reasons for any human group to question the suppositions and thrusts of evangelism on the basis of sound theological and cultural principles. Women especially are right to look critically at the concepts and practices of evangelism that affect them. How is God perceived? What value is ascribed to women's lives, identities, socio-cultural realities and concrete needs? Are women viewed as objets? instruments? self-sacrificing beings? Who decides this?

It is one thing to critique models of evangelization, however, and it is quite another thing to deny the validity of authentic evangelism altogether. Not all criticism of evangelism is fair, and furthermore, not all the criticism in the world can alter the fact that the gospel of Christ is essentially a proclamation of life, freedom and hope, and that women have found (and continue to find) this to be true. The reality is that women find in the gospel, and in the worship life and diaconal ministries of the church the very intuitions, symbols, and spiritual elements that they search for in their quest for "a better quality of life." This is clearly mirrored in the fact that the overwhelming majority of active participants in church life anywhere are women. Now, when that sense of "a better quality of life" becomes the starting point for faith in Christ, and for self-affirmation, celebration and the struggle for a new community, then indeed we have a very fruitful inter-relationship between evangelism and women's concerns.

At the beginning of this letter, I indicated that I wanted to briefly look at evangelism as a ministry that addresses the broken-heartedness of women. Broken-heartedness is the term that is being used increasingly to denote the pain that women have borne for generations. It refers to the internalized hurt caused by collective and personal abuse and discrimination down the centuries. It is not a new way of victimizing women. Rather, in the way the concept is used by Marlene Perera and others, it indicates a disposition of personal identification by women themselves with the brokenness they see around them. This tendency becomes the vibrant core - so essential to the evangelizing process - of an alternative sense of God as the loving Being who, in Christ is engaged in humanity's reconciliation. When women realize that God cares about them and offers them and the broken lives and communities they know, the hope of a new beginning, their lives are re-centered on God's loving intentions and, what is more, they become part of the solution to brokenness.

It is easy to observe that women come to the conviction that their ministry is first of all a ministry to other women. Of course, there are strong social and cultural reasons for the readiness of women to see their commitment in terms of other women first. These have to do with natural access for women as well as the "allowed space" for their interaction in different cultures. Over and beyond social reasons, however, there is a unique sense of interconnectedness that operates among them, allowing them to bond and grow in self-awareness and to struggle together for survival and enhancement of life. This allows them to appropriate God's gift of life through Jesus in a continuous, dynamic and transformative way. This is very much the evangelistic pattern that I have seen among African-American and Hispanic women in the USA, the women active in the pentecostal and popular protestant movement in Latin America, and organized women's groups in other countries and regions.

It needs to be said clearly that an evangelism of negativity or dominance has no place in such an approach. Rather, the hurtful paradigm of dominance that prevails in society and sectors of the church is replaced by one of compassion and interconnectedness. Far too much damage has already been done by centuries of negativity about women's bodies, sexuality, women's contributions, etc., for evangelism to compound this. Our relationships in the human family have already been sufficiently impoverished by the imposition on women of passivity and sacrifice. Evangelism is not to be instrumentalized in this direction. Christ's own way of relating to women was remarkably free of negativity and the desire to dominate. In stark contrast to the judgmental attitudes of his days, he recognized the intrinsic worth of women. He looked at them in equality and respect. He dialogued with them, healed and forgave them, and challenged them to live up to their dignity as daughters of God. Was it not he who addressed all those weighted down, offering them a totally different yoke? His approach inspires the type of evangelism that addresses broken-heartedness. It is an approach that Clair Fussel, writing for the International Review of Mission (April 1992) described very eloquently: "For me evangelization has become a process of recognizing the divine in my sisters, responding to that reality, loving them with my life and, in sharing my own journey, encouraging them to live theirs."

As is the case in the wider women's movement, the evangelistic ministry here described does not stop with a narrowly defined agenda of women's concerns, but embraces the well-being of the whole church and the community. It shares the hope it experiences in the incarnation of Christ with men, children and youth alike. Through the encouragement of the Spirit such a ministry immerses itself in the challenges of daily life, building strength to oppose the forces that exclude and deny people their dignity. Though by far the greatest energies for this evangelistic movement come from women themselves, there are numerous good examples of authentic evangelization that involve men, youth, children, and the wider community. Where these models work, whether in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the anonymous neighbourhoods of Western Europe, or the villages of India, they have a tremendous impact on values of mutual respect and of caring human relationships.

No, as I see it, authentic evangelism and the legitimate concerns of women are not foes, but friends and allies in the vision of a just future for all. Insofar as God's gift of life through Jesus is able to engage the broken-heartedness of women, it makes a singular contribution to the precious store of wholeness in the world. We long for the fulfilment of the promise from God that wholeness will be one day. In anticipation of that, the double challenge for us will be to make women's concerns and issues intrinsic to our evangelistic ministries, and to enrich the struggles of women through the practice of authentic evangelism.

I will close for now. Let me encourage you to share with me your views and comments on this theme. How is your church, group or organization dealing with the questions raised here? Do you have an experience or story you would like to share? I hope in the future to publish some of your responses so that others may benefit from them as well.

With kind regards and best wishes,

Paz y bien,

Ana Langerak
Executive Secretary for
Mission and Evangelism

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