Evangelism in countries where Christians are a minority has its challenges, but navigating the varying images of Jesus can be equally difficult where Christians are a majority.
In Russia and Eastern Europe, despite a strong Orthodox tradition, most view Jesus from the context of an atheistic society as purely a historic figure.
This mindset makes the concept of Jesus being God and of having a relationship with him harder to resonate with people.
One of BMS World Mission’s partners, Russian Ministries, is trying to encourage the next generation of Christians in Russia and other Eastern European countries to be more open about their faith where they study and work by giving them training and resources like Bibles, which will be attractive to young people and professionals.
“We want them to live lives that will help people engage with Jesus differently,” said Sergey Rakhuba, president of Russian Ministries.
Rakhuba said it is often harder to share your faith with people born in Russia and Ukraine, who believe they are automatically Orthodox Christians.
“It is more difficult to reach out to people that nominally consider themselves Christians and help them to accept Jesus as a personal savior,” he said.
Huw Anderson has been ministering in Italy with BMS since 2006. The challenge he faces as a pastor is overcoming two deeply ingrained images of Jesus for Italians – that of baby Jesus, meek and mild, or crucified Jesus, who stays on the cross.
“Jesus is either a baby or he is on a cross, his body broken,” Anderson said.
As Western evangelicals, we talk of having a personal relationship with Christ, but, according to Anderson, Catholics in Italy are likely to find his mother, Mary, more approachable.
“The role of the Madonna is huge, at times almost bigger than Jesus,” Anderson said. “Mary’s the one you can have a relationship with; you don’t actually relate to him. That’s why they pray more to the Madonna and the saints.”
In Peru, also a predominantly Catholic country, BMS workers Julia and James Henley have encountered a deep fear of God with a default position held by Peruvians that God is angry with them.
“Jesus is another deity, another God to be appeased,” Julia Henley said. “There is a lot of fear. It is almost like they need to cover everything, they need to pray for everyone they know because if they don’t, something bad may happen and that will be all their fault.”
The Henleys, who finished their service with BMS in Peru in January, tried to change perceptions of who Jesus is gradually through relationships and Bible studies.
“Our approach has been wanting to share as much as we can of the forgiveness of God, the love of God, the fact that though God sent his son to die for us, he didn’t do that so he could then just go and punish us all over again,” she said.
“It is a wonderful moment when you see that penny drop, and you see that look on their face as they realize, ‘So actually, God doesn’t hate me?’ It’s a process and takes a lot of time, a lot of prayer, a lot of conversations to bring it home,” she said.
When BMS manager for mission projects, Steve Sanderson, was a mission worker in Uganda from 2005-09, he saw the church in Africa had much vitality compared to the West.
“The great strength of the church in Africa is that it lives by faith and walks by faith. The extent to which God is at work is incredible and there is a lot we could be learning, from places like Uganda,” he said.
Sanderson did notice, though, an emphasis on pleasing Jesus so as to gain spiritually, and especially financially, from the teaching of the prosperity gospel.
Some poor people believe if you give a certain amount of money to the church, God will lift you out of poverty.
“Traditional African religion dominates the imagination of many people across Africa,” Sanderson said. “You give a sacrifice to the leopard God and he makes your crops grow. Jesus is very often portrayed as the leopard God of the jungle, who will ensure that you have prosperity. There is an extent to which often the character of Jesus, the humility of Jesus, the servant character of Jesus, is missed.”
BMS works in many of the least evangelized places around the world. But it also works in some predominantly Christian countries where there is often less of an emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ.
“There are strong believers in Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian denominations across the world and we rejoice in that,” David Kerrigan said. “But these can also be places where it is appropriate to stress that Jesus is on our side, to preach and live the message that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
The key, wherever we are, is to understand how others see Jesus and, from there, to explain what we believe to them. Then perhaps we will all be closer to knowing the real Jesus.
Right now we only see in the mirror darkly. One day we will see him face to face.
Chris Hall is the editor of BMS World Mission’s Engage magazine. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of BMS’ quarterly publication, Engage, and is used with permission. You can follow Chris on Twitter: @chrishallnewb and BMS: @BMSWorldMission.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part 1 is available here.