Last week I attended the Global Faith Forum in Keller, Texas. As a United Methodist, I’m part of a tradition that loves dialogue. We tend to be universalists, if not in theory, then in our ethos and our practice. We never want to believe – let alone say – that a practitioner of another religion is wrong.
But I’m also an evangelical. While universalism is making inroads into the evangelical tradition, it is still very much a minority position (at least when it comes to theory). Evangelicals think all people, regardless of their current moral condition or connection (or non-connection) to a religious community, need to come to explicit faith in Jesus. While United Methodists and members of other mainline denominations are usually comfortable in dialogue and conversation with participants in other religious traditions, Evangelicals’ comfort is often proportional to the evangelistic ardor and clarity of the event. If we’re there offering Christ to people so they can come to faith in him, well, that’s entirely appropriate. Anything less smells of compromise. Mark Galli, one of the speakers at the event tells of this response.
The convener of the event, Bob Roberts, pastor of NorthWood church, reiterated his commitment to evangelical theology throughout the event. He’s a “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life” kind of guy. He wants all his Muslim, Jewish, Communist, and Atheist friends to come to faith in Jesus. He believes their eternal destiny is dependent on their relationship with Jesus. Even so, the immediate purpose of the event was not what most evangelicals would consider evangelism. He did not press the non-Christians present to convert. So is he a traitor to the cause?
I think not. Instead, he is recognizing that real evangelism takes more than the clear enunciation of the facts about Jesus. Before people can even consider the message about Jesus, they need to consider the messenger. Is this person (or community) credible? Is their message about Jesus exemplified in their lifestyle? Is this witness credible as a person?
Roberts knows – and it’s not too much of a leap to admit it – that in many setting over the past several centuries Christians have not been perceived as credible witnesses to those far from our tradition. If we are perceived as agents of Jesus and not merely as a sort of religious anesthetic to let western colonialism go down more easily, we have to also avoid the impression of being spiritual headhunters. Do we really love people? Do we really care for them? Or do we just want to be able to crow, “I led a Muslim to Christ?” Roberts wants to communicate genuine love, understanding and friendship. If his friends want to take up faith in Jesus, he’d be overjoyed. But he’ll love them and be their friend even if they don’t.
Robert’s strategy fit well with the advice of Thursday’s keynote speaker, Ed Stetzer. Stetzer’s first two points were:
- Let each religion speak for itself.
- Talk with individuals not merely abstract faiths.
The essentialist view of religion, that each religion, in its essence, is monolithic, doesn’t fit well with the diversity we see in the world around us, though it does fit well with the views of some Muslims – I think of Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their judgment that the vats majority of Muslims are not true Muslims. Perhaps Christian readers can think of Christians who think similarly (it shouldn’t be hard). Taking an anti-essentialist view – as we find in Stetzer’s theory and Robert’s practice – we only learn what other religions, Islam for example, believe, practice and stand for as we engage with actual practitioners. We cannot say in advance, merely on the strength of our course in world religions, or having read a textbook, that what we associate with a particular religion actually reflects the belief and practice of any given adherent. So we see Bob Roberts not only reading all the books (at least several of them) by John Esposito, a scholar of Islam, but also spending time with Muslims from around the world.
Looking at Ed Stetzer’s blog last week, some folks were convinced he was going over to the dark side, given that he was speaking at the Forum (a Forum sponsored, in part, by the nefarious Council on Foreign Relations), so saying the Roberts was listening to him, may not seem a very effective defense. But I can think of another that Roberts might have learned from. Jesus.
I think of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4. (Was it Eboo Patel who mentioned that text?) Jesus’ conversation with her illustrated some key practices we who are concerned with evangelism might consider. First, Jesus uses indirection. As in every other conversation, this conversation is unique. He takes what is at hand (water, thirst) and starts a conversation. Second, Jesus wasn’t in a hurry. He was willing to take some time. While our evangelistic conversations might wander around, we often feel discouraged if they don’t end up with someone praying the sinner’s prayer then and there. When Jesus’ conversation with the woman is interrupted by the return of his disciples he hasn’t even gotten to the first Spiritual Law. And yet he tells his disciples that he has been rejuvenated.
When we engage with individuals – as Jesus did, as Bob Roberts did – we aren’t operating on a “they could die any moment and face eternity” timetable. We’re entrusting our friends into God’s hands, trusting that God will take the lead. While the temporal urgency we hear in our evangelism training might be good theory, I just don’t see the practice carried out in Scripture. Jesus doesn’t do it, Paul doesn’t do it. In the OT we don’t even see God doing in his dealings with Israel.
So what can we make of the Global Faith Forum and other efforts to converse with non-Christians? As an instantiation of a strategy of love, indirection, and committing for the long haul, I – as a United Methodist and an evangelical – am attracted to the model.