Last month, I spent a week on a short-term mission trip to San Sebastian, Spain. Later on, I’m going to write on a few things I took from it personally. Today, though, I’m warming up with some expansion on an observation I made on the way back, on what seems to me like a key difference between evangelism here1 and in Spain.
First, I’ll rewind a little to describe the trip. I, forty or so students from the high school ministry in which I volunteer, and ten other volunteers and staff put on a nightly street festival in various well-traveled parts of the city. The festivals featured amusements like balloon animals, face-painting, and line dancing2. We had fluent Spanish speakers3 manning a few tents with the sole purpose of outreach, and others circulating in the crowd. I admit, before the trip, I was unconvinced of its effectiveness4. I’m pleased to admit I was wrong5, and the key difference I alluded to has to do with perceptions of the church.
The local institution of the church shapes the way people look at the worldwide body of believers church, and the way people look at the church determines the best way to reach them. In the US, there are plenty of stereotypes and misconceptions, but today I’ll just pick one—the trendy, vain, insular evangelical church focused on appearances only6. A secular American looking at the San Sebastian trip through that lens might ask, where’s the part where you help people?
This is not an altogether invalid complaint, but it contains an implicit premise which doesn’t hold: the problems I see with the church here are the same problems everyone sees with the church everywhere. What might convince the notional secular American—seeing a church deeply involved in serving its community7—might not be as effective for a secular Basque.
Here I descend into rampant speculation. The conception of the church which seems most prevalent to me among Europeans is that of the ancient, crumbling establishment, either a cultural identifier more than an identifier of a changed life, or a building populated by the elderly and doomed to irrelevance in a generation or two. Against that backdrop, the ministry in which we took part turns heads and defies expectations8: here are fifty students and adults with enough heart and enough fire to leave their comfortably air-conditioned building in Texas and cross an ocean to share this good news. That’s just not a thing the stereotypical Spanish church would do, and it certainly seems to have sparked enough curiosity to change some lives.
Of course, we did the easy bit, and the local churches we worked with have the harder (but more rewarding) work of shepherding a bunch of new believers and watching them grow. Fortunately, they too have enough heart and enough fire to see it through. Anyway, that’s not the only way this trip was illuminating for me, or personally interesting, but until I finish the second part of this two-part series, you’ll just have to wait and see.
1. That is, in the US.
2. Which I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I might.
3. And occasionally some other people; a decent number of English-speakers passed through.
4. Although I do know everything…
5. …it turns out I actually don’t.
6. This is almost always an unfair take, and I’m certainly not knocking the modern style of evangelical church, given that those I’ve attended on my own advice generally fit the mold.
7. Which many do.
8. I could probably defend the argument that this describes almost every sort of outreach, but that sounds like a great topic for another post sometime later, so I’ll hold off.