It was the summer of 1814 in Philadelphia. More than 30 delegates pooled resources to support missionaries. It came after a century of revolution and war, but also of explosive missionary activity inspired by the Second Great Awakening.
It was the age of missionary giants such as Adoniram Judson and William Carey, who ventured to India to spread the gospel. It was the time of Luther Rice, who traveled hundreds of miles by horseback to raise funds for missionaries and the Convention alike.
Other missionaries went West, East, and South to spread the good news. One of the first women missionaries to participate in outreach, Charlotte White, traveled to Asia.
If anything, the Triennial Convention and the societies born out of that movement reveal the distinctive qualities of America’s missionary culture. Since the nation’s beginning, the Founders believed in a “manifest destiny” to spread out to other parts of the continent out of cultural and Christian duty.
We were (and continue to be, according to the late President Ronald Reagan), in the words of Puritan John Winthrop, a “city upon a hill.”
Yet, this zeal was steeped in a colonial worldview in which Christians believed that they also had the calling to help others become “civilized.”
Despite the spiritual motivation, it was seductively patronizing in many of its forms. Some mission activities indirectly perpetuated institutions of slavery and imperialism that gave way to Jim Crow, apartheid, and economic disparity later that century.
Nevertheless, I am thankful for the missionary legacy that birthed the Triennial Convention. We Christians stand upon the shoulders of courageous men and women who had an amazing vision for spreading God’s Word.
But I am also thankful for a shift in worldview between then and now. Now, we do not do missions in order to convert “the heathen” and take advantage of natural resources and third-world economies. We do not free men and women in Christ only to enslave them upon the manors of men.
Rather, we see others as God-image-bearers who have things to teach us as well. Most contemporary missionaries seek to do “contextual” ministry through which they work within the very cultures of those whom they are reaching.
In the American Founding, Christians believed that they had a mission to bring God to the rest of the world. Now, we realize that God is already at work in the world.
We only have to hear God’s invitation and bear witness to God’s good news with people on God’s–and their–own terms.
This strategy is biblical. In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul took a tour of Athens. When he preached to the philosophers there, he said that God was among them because they already built a statue to “an unknown god” (v. 23).
Paul stressed that this nameless god was the God of Israel who became human in the person of Jesus the Christ. Paul used this cultural symbol and pagan poetry in order to connect his experiences of God with their experiences of God.
Whereas a colonial and imperial worldview tried to get people to church and assimilate cultures, a worldview taken out of Paul’s own missionary playbook behooves Christians to learn how to be guests in a world thirsty for the spiritual nourishment that only God’s well could provide.
Let us hear the invitation and go forth, and let us regain that missionary zeal that once captivated those courageous forebears who formed the Triennial Convention.