It was a night I will never forget. Forty young people were packed into the tiny youth hall of our church and 150 adults were eating, listening to poetry and telling jokes in the main hall.
It was cramped enough when everyone was seated, but when the music started it became a party like no other. Kosovar dancing filled the room with hilarity and laughter and condensation. My glasses got so fogged up I stepped outside to grab some air. It was then that a Muslim man in his twenties joined me, put an arm round my shoulder and shouted: “I never could have imagined this. My last contact with Christians was when the Serbs tried to execute my family. Now we are dancing in a church.”
I could never have imagined it either. Seven years earlier, I had volunteered as a cross-cultural missionary and requested a placement in Russia. A three-year stint in Albania had made my heart sink at first. Another language to learn – and one which would be virtually useless after the three years. How wrong I was. The Kosovan crisis displaced tens of thousands of Albanian speakers and many of them ended up in Harrow, where I was leading a church. We ran English classes for the women and Albanian classes for the children. We acted as referees for passport and asylum applications. We put on cultural evenings with folk music and local delicacies. We did everything we could to make the Kosovans feel welcome.
But was it also right for us to offer the opportunity to discover more about the Christian faith?
I wanted to put the record straight and that the ethnic cleansing conducted by the Serbian army was not an accurate outworking of the teaching of Jesus to love your enemies. I wanted to explain the “Jesus is Lord” text in large silver lettering on the wall – that Jesus really is the rightful ruler of all the nations and every heart. I wanted to worship God with my new neighbours as well as dancing with them to their folk songs.
Some would say that serving displaced people in desperate need has to go hand in hand with offering them a spiritual home. Others see the evangelism of refugees as the proselytisation and exploitation of vulnerable people. So who is right?
In Europe this is a live issue as the continent has a large population of Muslim refugees and asylum seekers within its borders. Germany alone has welcomed around a million refugees in the last nine months. Many of the frontline charities are either explicitly Christian or have a Christian history.
In recent weeks in Germany this dilemma has worked its way out through two very different responses from “evangelical” groups.
The Evangelical Church of the Rhineland included in a 32-page booklet the following statement: “The Great Commission — ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ — does not mean Christians must try to convert others to their faith.”
This prompted an immediate reaction from the head of the German Evangelical Alliance, Hartmut Steeb: “We declare firmly that the fundamental missionary task of Christians, namely to preach the Gospel of Jesus to others and invite them to follow it, cannot be given up.”
So how should Christians working with displaced and vulnerable people understand the sharing of their faith? This is an issue that development charities as well as relief workers wrestle with all the time. There are no simple answers, but there are frameworks for thinking through the issues.
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