I’ve spent countless hours playing city builder computer games. SimCity,Pharaoh, Skylines, whatever you name, chances are I’ve played it. I think the reason I love playing these games so much is that the way we build our towns tells a lot about the things we value as a community and as a culture. For instance, one of the most striking things about my travels in Central America is how – almost uniformly – the town center is composed of a Catholic Church spilling out into some well-manicured park or football pitch. For most of that part of the world, the Catholic Church has been (and will continue to be) the life blood of the community. Even those who don’t identify as Catholic (or even Christian for that matter) will often point to that building and say something to the extent of “welcome to our town; what have you seen? Have you visited the church?” Pride means a lot for human-beings. And here in Rukira – half the world over – the community has chosen to place the church directly in the center of their lives.
On Sunday, the LCR celebrated a baptism. To many in the United States, this may not seem like a terribly unusual thing – after all, we (Lutherans) baptize our members periodically throughout the year whenever the parents (or the baptizee(??)) decide it is time to baptize. The LCR tends to do baptism differently. The church almost always baptizes (and confirms) exclusively on Christmas Day. This year, the Rukira Parish baptized almost 30 children and confirmed around 20 young adults. I’m not sure if there is any theological reasoning for the church choosing to do baptisms/confirmations on Christmas apart from Christmas being a time for celebration and why not continue the celebration by welcoming more folks into the fold. After all, we understand Jesus to have entered the world on Christmas Day what better way to welcome Jesus’ arrival than to welcome the arrival of new children into the family of God.
Yet Sunday’s baptism was special and so, the church chose to do it apart from the others. Today the church baptized an 11-year-old local kid who lives across the street from the church and comes from a Muslim family. The dude is an awesome kid. He plays a lot of soccer (I love soccer), he is funny (I enjoy funny people), he is friendly and kind (everybody should like friendly and kind people) – naturally, I think the world of the him. I don’t know 100% why he found his way to church (he doesn’t speak English so I couldn’t ask), but there are some pretty self-evident indicators which almost certainly explain at least part of his presence.
- The LCR is very, very, VERY, very He lives directly across the street; I would be concerned if he was not aware of the presence of the church. Likewise, many of the people in the neighborhood (his neighbors) attend the LCR parish.
- The LCR partners with Compassion International and has a Saturday school for local kids which he attends.
- The LCR is open to talking with – and is friendly with – people from different denominations and religious backgrounds. This is not true of many of the Christian denominations in Rwanda, sure, but also denominations across the world who have an unfortunate “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” reputation.
- People take pride in having the Lutheran Church in the neighborhood. Even if they are not members, the LCR has created such a great image in Rukira that folks are proudto add the LCR to the staple of local church bodies.
The service itself was one of the best I’ve experienced since coming to Rwanda. During Rwandan church services the pastor will ask for visitors to stand up and introduce themselves (Rwandans love visitors). On a typical Sunday, the church will have anywhere from 5-10 people stand up, introduce themselves, their church history, give some sort of prayer/word of thanks (occasionally a song) and then sit down – the process lasts 5 minutes tops. However, on this last Sunday, half the church stood up and each person gave a different account of themselves, how they found their way to church, and a word of congratulations for the kid who was about to be baptized (clearly word had spread around the village about what was happening in the Lutheran Church). The most special moment came when the boy’s family stood up and thanked the congregation for welcoming him into their midst. Despite being a Muslim family, the mother and father were clearly delighted to see their son be accepted so wholeheartedly by a faith community; they even said they may start attending the Lutheran Church.
I was incredibly moved to see my friend’s baptism and his parents’ words. I couldn’t help but think about how this story fits in with my understanding of evangelism in the United States. What is particularly powerful to me about this story is the way by which this guy found his way to church and what that can say about reasonable evangelism. In the United States, there are many different ways of considering evangelism. To us mainline protestants we tend to approach evangelism cautiously, with schemes, plans, and contraptions meant to change the profile of our congregations to make us seem more appealing, cool, young, hip, diversethan we actually are. Moreover, some folks tend towards a zealous – “true Christian = true salvation” – model focusing on the promise of personal salvation as a means of evangelism. Yet, for my friend, it’s pretty obvious that these weren’t the methods which brought him to church. He came to church because the church did its’ job in the community – it existed. The church stood right in the middle of the village and let the people pray in it every weekday; it was a meeting place for government leaders; it taught the village children; and on Sundays it opened wide its doors and let the village hear the Good News being preached within. In Rukira, people take pride in the church – they place their trust in the church – and the church delivers.
There is something to be said about placing your church in the center of town. People want to have somethingto take pride in; and why shouldn’t that something be the church? Sure, it’s awesome for a church to use dynamic preachers, young/diverse congregations, and songs with an electric guitar as a means of evangelism; however, if the church isn’t making it a point to be a community spacethen our evangelism is falling by the wayside. After all, the church grew in the past because the community cared about the church, likewise, it continues to grow in places like Rukira beause the community cares about the church. We cannot allow the word evangelism to be a synonym for being zealous or extreme, rather we should embrace it and make our churches an example of God’s Kingdom on Earth made manifest.
At the end of Matthew, Jesus gives his famous ‘Great Commission’ account to the disciples telling them to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Through baptism we welcome people into the community of Christ. Baptism isn’t aggressive, loud or controversial; its friendly, kind, and welcoming – something central to our lives as Christians and, for that, we should feel pride for our church.
‘I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.’ (Borning Cry, ELW 732).
Until next time,