I teach a class in Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). Since I am a Missions professor at an Evangelical missionally-minded seminary, I like to challenge the notion that IRD is anti-evangelistic. IRD is not preaching (1-way communication to change someone’s mind) or apologetics (2-way communication to change someone’s mind). IRD focuses on understanding, but I point out that, much in line with Dale Carnegie, one does not influence another person by trying to win arguments. Mutual understanding builds trust, and opens the door for more effective sharing of one’s own beliefs.
Part of that class was to have my students practice Inter-religious Dialogue. They were to have two good conversations with individuals of another faith.
Most did okay enough. There were some issues:
- Some really did not talk to those of another faith, but of a different Christian denomination. Why? In some cases, they may have been shy about making a conversation with someone from a different faith. For others, I don’t know. This is a Baptist seminary, and there is a temptation (a very unhealthy temptation in my view) to identify people from other denominations as people of other faiths.
- Some did a conversation more like a quiz. “Can you answer me these following questions about your beliefs?” and “Okay… thanks for your time. Good day.” That is not the worst thing. Evangelicals sometimes almost revel in their ignorance of other faiths… so I can’t really complain that they took time to listen. But perhaps they could have done more to build relationships.
- A few quickly fell back into argument— trying to ask clever questions, or make poignant statements that would leave the other at a loss and realize that their faith is invalid. That rarely works. But I know that argument is commonly taught as if it is a great method of sharing one’s faith. Just this morning, I saw a tweet from a Christian author that said something like. “Evangelism today is spelled A-P-O-L-O-G-E-T-I-C-S.” Personally, in a post-modern society, most real (inter-religious or inter-faith, rather than inter-denominational) evangelism should be spelled D-I-A-L-O-G-U-E. But I know that the desire to be clever and “score points” can be strong… and there are valid roles for apologetics.
One student in particular really got my point. When I first started teaching the class, he seemed rather skeptical thinking that I am disrespecting Evangelism. This is not surprising since Dialogue as promoted by John Hick, Raimon Pannikkar, and others on the Relativistic side of the spectrum of Dialogue thought certainly did not support proselytization… and often found it to be anathema, or at least inconsistent with dialogue.
But over time, my student came around to the idea that there may be benefit in using dialogue to reach some people.
He presented a case where it was very helpful. He was having a conversation with a person from another of the Great World Religions. That person was quite cautious and suspicious of my student. My student was very non-combative– he did not preach, he did not argue. They talked about life and faith. Over three or four meetings, they were able to get to the point where they could talk about issues of faith and faith allegiance in a mutually safe environment. The other person decided to become a follower of Christ. My student is now mentoring that person… but is for now cautious in integrating that person into a church. (Sadly, there are far too many horror stories of well-meaning Christians who destroy young Christians from other religious backgrounds because they don’t know how to respond well.)
So does that mean that Dialogue can work in Evangelism. Absolutely Yes. Is it the only thing that works? No, but for a person from a radically different faith background, canned presentations, clever arguments, and polemics are likely to create a hostile response, not the desired response.
My student was thankful for the class because it helped him respond in a way that the other person was prepared to respond well to… rather than react against.
I find it amusing sometimes, and sometimes disappointing, when I teach a class and my students do almost the exact opposite of what I recommend. It is their right, and I don’t really trust professors who feel that their students must mimic their own views and behaviors. Still, one hopes that the students at least struggle with what they learned from the course trying to figure out what to value and practice, and what to set aside….
… And then sometimes they just get it.