The Choke Law

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

Fr. Vincent Donovan was a 20th-century Catholic priest and missionary to the Masai tribes of Tanzania for 17 years during the 1960s and 1970s. His book about that experience, Christianity Rediscovered, is regarded as a “classic” on cross-cultural Christian engagement and evangelism. Over the years, Donovan’s book has been highly influential for me in my ongoing learning about how to embody the gospel before non-believers.

Donovan defines the church’s call to share the gospel in this way: “The goal of evangelization, and the basis for its urgency, is to put all things under the dominion of Christ. The fulfillment of the human race, the destiny of the human race, of all creation, is what is at stake.” God used Donovan’s mission to Tanzania to bring many people into the faith.

However, Donovan’s experience of seeing new believers come to Christ had a “shadow side.” The more the Christian movement became established in the areas blessed by the church’s mission, the more that very mission began to wane. Energy began to shift toward the organizational and pastoral demands of the church and away from the primary mission of the church, sharing the gospel. In other words, apostolic priority began to be overwhelmed by pastoral focus, and mission was overtaken by maintenance. This is also largely the story of mainline Christianity in the West over the past 100 years or more.

Throughout his Tanzanian ministry, Donovan witnessed repeatedly the following pattern: new communities of faith were soon the recipients of Christian schools, hospital clinics, charitable work, and social service initiatives. Of course, all of these are good things. The problem was that these new indigenous Christian communities were not being trained by the missionaries to assume leadership for their own ecclesial life. Donovan named this paternalistic phenomenon “the Choke Law.” It comes into effect when church growth was deemed to require management by foreign church officials at the expense of ongoing mission and evangelization.

“The choke law” is fundamentally a failure of discipleship, neglecting our Lord’s pointed exhortation in his Great Commission to make disciples and not just baptize converts. The nature of discipleship is that Christians learn how to take on more and more responsibility for their growth in Christ and their shared life together.

Donovan slowly came to realize that the best thing to give these new churches was total responsibility. The climax of the book occurs just before Donovan’s return to the US when he addresses one of the congregations: “I have finished my last instruction with you. I will never come back to teach anyone else here. From this day on, it is you people who must teach the word of Christianity. . . I will return to you another time to break bread together, as Jesus told us to do. [But] I will leave you [now] and you will be on your own. Learn to stop depending on me today. Start depending on the one you receive today, the Holy Spirit of God.”

I continue to tease out numerous lessons from Donovan’s book, but “the choke law” seems particularly relevant in my opinion, both for our common life at St. John the Divine, as well as for my leadership among you. We are blessed by an incredibly active, entrepreneurial, and growing parish. Thanks be to God! Still, it is a lot to manage. Faithful and effective pastoral oversight of any church is of critical importance. Nowhere in Donovan’s book is there any suggestion that efficient organization and pastoral care for the fellowship are insignificant. The issue is one of balancing the demands of pastoral oversight with continuing focus on the mission of the church whose very nature is always oriented toward taking the reign of God in Christ out into the world. This is a matter for collective consideration among us at St. John the Divine.

A more personal consideration may be to reflect on how the busyness and demands of our lives – our individual activities and concerns, our family commitments, our professional lives, and our important other civic engagements – may also inadvertently effect “the choke law” in our Christian witness. I am not the only one who needs to pray daily the beautiful collect from Morning Prayer: “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life, we may not forget you…”

A key aspect of our vision is that we want more and more of our members to self-consciously embrace the call to be lights for Christ in every sphere of living. The good news is that this call need not require heroic sacrifice or foreign missionary service. Christian mission begins closest to home, within the personal and social connections you may already have. That is why I keep asking us this question: What might be a relatively small but impactful missional opportunity at the most local level for you? Let us never be too preoccupied with maintaining the pace of full and busy lives that we choke the life out of our highest purpose: to be the Light of Christ for the sake of others.

Weekly Wisdom

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. – Philippians 2:12-13

One Good Recommendation

Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J. Donovan (Orbis Books, 1978)

Referenced at length above, this is a book on my personal “Top 10” best reads on Christian mission. A Catholic missionary to the Masai peoples of Tanzania in the 1960’s and 70’s, Donovan movingly writes about how his experiences transformed his understanding of what defines church: “an ordination of the entire community, a consecration of all the offices and gifts and functions of the Christian body – a eucharistic community with a mission.” Given our vision at St. John the Divine to be a Light to the City, I cannot recommend this book too highly.

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