Convert versus Proselytize?

One of my students read an article “Conversion or Proselytization? Being Maasai, Becoming Christian” by Joshua Robert Barron. The article takes a very positive view of conversion and a negative view of proselytization. Since a lot of people (including myself) use the terms generally interchangeably, I was curious at what his point was. Conversion seems to be bringing people to the Jesus who is already among them. Proselytization is bringing people out of their culture into an outsider faith and culture.

My first question was why was he using these terms in these ways. A challenge I have for myself is reading into these descriptions. After all, bringing people to the Jesus/God who is already among them can be a reworking of the “Ministry of Presence”— where the focus is not on bringing people to Christ at all, but rather on identifying God’s work that already exists among them. At its most extreme, one is not seeking to lead people to declare Jesus as Lord, or repent before God, but rather “Be the best you can be within the moral principles and beliefs of your culture.”

But that does not appear to be what Barron is talking about. Clearly, Barron is speaking of leading people to Christ (particularly in this case the Maasai) without losing their own cultural identity. That is a noble task, but it still got me thinking about whether emphasizing the difference between “convert” and “proselyte” is useful.

Both proselyte and convert are old terms. The former is a Greek term in origin, and the latter is Latin in origin. The term “proselytos” is used in the Old Testament (Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible), and the New Testament. In the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, proselytos is used as the translation of the Hebrew term “ger.” Etymologically, “proselytos” comes from two parts that come together to mean “come towards.” However, ‘ger’ probably translates best as “resident alien.” That is ‘ger’ means, from the Israelite perspective, those people who are not Israelite and yet live among the Israelites.

Over time, ‘ger’ began to develop into three different meanings.

  1. ‘Ger’ in itself does not necessarily mean conversion. They could be loyal resident aliens… living among Jews, and obeying the rules of the land, but not identifying with the Jewish faith.
  2. ‘Ger zedek’ or ‘Ger emet’ is a true and full convert to the Jewish faith. A person in this category sets aside his or her faith and unique cultural identity, and embraces not only the Jewish faith, but also its community and culture.
  3. ‘Ger shaar’ is proselyte “of the gate” or “Son of Noah.” This person can be thought of as a “semi-proselyte.” This person has identified with the Jewish faith more than simply a loyal resident alien (‘ger’) but not as completely as a true and full proselyte (‘ger zedek’).

In the New Testament, the term Proselyte is used for a complete convert to Judaism where their non-Jewish character is left behind (‘Ger zedek’). Another group is the “God-fearers.” These were Gentiles who embraced some aspects of Judaism (nature of God, worship, and general ethics) without fully identifying with cultural and ceremonial Judaism. God-fearers then align with ‘Ger shaar.’

In the church, the question of who was truly a Christian came up. Must all Christians share a common culture? The question of whether Gentiles must become Jews to become Christians, or in a more general sense, “Must all people who wish to become Christians lose their unique cultural identifiers?” As they come to Christ, do they come as ‘Ger zedek’ or ‘Ger shaar’?

Truthfully, none of the three categories of proselyte really work in Christianity. Becoming a Christian involves embracing a deeper commitment than simply being a ‘God-fearer.’ And it does involve some level of commitment and common identity as part of the Body of Christ. At the same time, the Body of Christ is to exist in Unity, NOT Uniformity.

Conversion has its roots in the Latin that essentially means “to reverse direction.” The term is broad. As such, it is hard to say that “Conversion” and “Proselytization” are clearly at odds. However, the term “proselyte” as it is used in the New Testament does suggest losing one’s own unique culture during conversion to the Jewish faith. Christians are not called upon to lose their own culture in becoming Christian. However, it is accurate to say that to follow Christ is absolutely a “reversing of direction” since no one follows Christ by accident or natural inclination.

Looked at this way, I would have to agree with Barron that we are called upon by Christ to develop converts NOT proselytes. And if one accepts this language, then we should not identify ourselves as proselytizers.


Jochanan H. A. Wijnhoven, “Convert and Conversion” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought. Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs, Arthur A. Cohen/Paul Mendes-Flohr ,eds. (New York: Scribner, 1987) 101-3. Online Available HERE.

Joshua Robert Barron, “Conversion or Proselytization? Being Maasai, Becoming Christian,” Global Missiology, Vol. 18 No. 2 (2021), April. Online Available Here.

As the Father Hath Sent Me…

My favorite “Great Commission” is the one recorded in John “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21). But it is not the most popular one. Some people prefer the one in Acts 1:8. That sending forth nature of the Gospel Call is inspirational. I recently read one writer who noted his preference for the Luke 24 version. I can’t remember why but maybe because it was more clearly focused on redemption. Most prefer the Matthew 28 passage. I suppose it is that it is suggestive of a process— Discipling in terms going, baptizing, and teaching.

But there is a more questionable side to the preference, or priority, of the Matthew 28 passage. That is the tendency to see that passage as providing a limitation of what is “Real Missions.” Should such a limitation be considered appropriate? I don’t really think so. For the following reasons…

#1. A missionary is first of all a Christian. As such, a missionary is responsible to live out the ethics of Christ. So, for example, the ‘extreme spiritualistic’ perspective of missions really cannot be justified. That perspective says that one should not be involved in caring ministries, or social justice ministries, because they are a distraction from the “real” work of missionaries. Since holistic care and justice are front and center in terms of the ethics of Christ, a missionary should be involved with them as Christians EVEN IF HE OR SHE FEELS THAT THAT IS NOT PART OF THEIR CALLING AS A MISSIONARY.

#2. The Great Commission is simply an application of the Great Commandment. Some have suggested that we are missionaries because of the Great Commission. Arguably, we would not need the Great Commission to know that we need to serve in a missions capacity. The Bible as a description of God as a Missionary God who calls us to join in His work, tied to our call to love our neighbors as ourselves, as part of our love of (and obedience to) God, is enough. But I don’t think a narrow interpretation of the Great Commission really stands up in this same way. God’s mission is so much bigger, and so is the Great Commandment.

#3. A missionary is driven by the example of Christ. In part, this ties to the John’s version of the Great Commission. Christ’s sending of us is linked to the Father’s sending of Christ. Therefore, we learn something about our role in being sent by understanding Jesus’ role in being sent. Beyond that, a disciple of Christ is obedient to Christ, in terms of calling, in terms of proclamation, in terms of service. To know what a missionary should do, one should look to see what Jesus did as a missionary. Jesus was, after all, a missionary. This is consistent with the Hebrews passage describing Jesus as an apostle (Hebrews 3:1), and (once again) John’s version of the Great Commission where it is stated that he is one sent out by God.

Looking at it a different way, we know who we are to be by what Jesus commanded us, and by what Jesus actually did.

<I am drawing much here from “Encountering Theology of Mission” by Ott, Strauss and Tennent.

A number of reasons that Jesus was sent does not apply directly to missionaries.

Paul focused on Jesus’ coming as primarily about redemption. It is hardly surprising then that many Evangelicals today seem to think that Jesus only came to save us from our sins (“Born to Die”) Evangelicals (and they are not alone) often focus on the Epistles rather than on the Gospels. Seems backwards, but that is the way it is. Missionaries are not “the way to redemption” and they are not a “ransom for sinners. Perhaps we cannot say that we were sent to the “Lost Sheep of Israel.” However, others are more applicable.

Jesus was (1) Sent to preach the Kingdom (Luke 4:43 et al). This is a purpose for missionaries as well. That links also to Luke 10 where Jesus disciples were to travel announcing the kingdom of God.

Jesus was (2) Sent to create division. (Luke 12:49, 51 et al). Missionaries are not tasked to destroy families or cultures. Nevertheless, the message does call for transformation, and forces a decision to accept or reject.

Jesus was (2) Sent to create division. (Luke 12:49, 51 et al). Missionaries are not tasked to destroy families or cultures. Nevertheless, the message does call for transformation, and forces a decision to accept or reject.

(3) Jesus was sent to give social justice and holistic care (Luke 4). In Nazareth, Jesus quoted Isaiah and then declares that this passage is being fulfilled at this time. This is generally viewed as a declaration of Jesus’ understanding of His own mission. Some people like to take this declaration very figuratively (often by people who if anything tend towards knee-jerk literalism in other parts of the Bible). But Jesus actively preached against the abuse of the poor, especially by the Jewish elite, and healed the sick. Additionally, He trained his disciples to do the same. Frankly, for those who like to look at Jesus’ reading in Luke 4 as figurative needs to look on the broader thrust of the Gospel of Luke as Jesus as caregiver and compassionately siding with the marginalized. In that light, Jesus’ declaration was placed there and is thematically significant for the book as a whole.

(4) Jesus was sent to “do the work of the Father.” (John 6;38 et al)

(5) Jesus was sent to “teach the truth.” (John 18:37)

(6) Jesus was sent to give fullness of life. (John 10:10) Again, some may try to narrow that down to salvation, but the broader context of that verse is Jesus using the metaphor of Shepherd. While one of the potential meanings of the metaphor is self-sacrifice, the dominant themes that relate to the Shepherd are more in terms of care and faithfulness.

I have noted that Barnabas and Paul are the best exemplars for missionaries. However, Jesus is the ultimate exemplar for being a Christian. And since missionaries are Christians first, ministers second, Jesus is in many ways a better guide for what a missionary is to be than Barnabas and Paul.

Writing Dispassionately for Passionate People

I have complained at times about the culture of academic papers where writing is supposed to be dispassionate in tone. One is not supposed to put in exclamation points (!!!) or ALL CAPS or use strongly emotional language to express arguments or ideas. The reason I was given was that research is supposed to be a rationalistic enterprise and any use of language, style, or symbology that appears to seek to be persuasive by any other means than pure rationality was problematic. The problem is that research is changing, especially with the recognition of the value of qualitative research and greater respect for research that is more subjective, phenomenological, immersed in its context, has led to major reevaluation of dispassionate writing.

Recently, I was asked to review a paper for an online service for papers. Some people want to be peer reviewed without going through the fickleness of seminars and journals. (Only twice in my life have I submitted a paper for review to a seminar or journal. The first was submitted to a seminar and it was turned down because my topic was more than slightly off topic to the main thrust of the event <worth a try>. The second was submitted to a journal and was accepted. However, the journal got delayed so many times that I pulled my article back and put it online myself. Just lost interest in that whole thing.)

Sorry, got off topic. I was asked to peer review a paper. It was written by a missiologist I have a fair bit of respect for. I was expecting to find the paper valuable. It was a paper on problems with using anthropology in missions. While I think pretty positively of cultural/social/mission anthropology, I am certainly open to hear valuable insight and critique.

Unfortunately, I began to glance at the article before reading it and saw “GOBBLEDYGOOK” put in all capital letters more than once. Looking at the context around it I found that the writer viewed anthropology as deserving the aforementioned label. Disparaging terms are not very endearing, but I began to read the article. Almost immediately I was thrown by a sentence. The writer was complaining that missionaries were using anthropology, which is secular. The writer suggested that this was a problem. The metric system, the alphabet, and my Moto G cellphone are also secular but these seem to be perfectly fine to use for missions. The claim that something is secular is not an argument against it (in the slightest), and frankly few fields of study have been more influenced by Christian missionaries than cultural anthropology. Clearly, to me at least, using the argument that anthropology is “secular” is an attempt to disparage a field by using a term that is emotionally disruptive to many Christians. It is akin to someone who says, “_______________ is (Good/Bad) because it is (Liberal/Conservative/Communist/Fascist/Etc.)

Now I need to step back a minute. I seem to be giving the impression that I think the article was a bad article. Actually, I have no idea. I ended up not reading it. I took a bit of offense to the language and emotional argument. I did not wish to review it. Mostly, if I read it, I may be tempted to review it. If I review it I might be tempted to disparage it. Or course, I might find the article valuable. I am simply not giving it a chance.

I think that is the point. Academic articles are not written dispassionately because dispassionate is better, or that the readers are dispassionate. Rather, readers are highly emotional people, invested in their own prejudices. This is, frankly, by divine design. God is passionate and invested as well. The writer, if he or she wants to influence the reader but keep them reading without shutting down, must find a way in the writing to do this. Ideally the researcher would write in such a way as to show deep respect for the reader. That is hard to do through a media as cold as black text on white background. Thus, the best they can do generally is write neutrally, dispassionately.

In my dissertation, I offended one of my readers greatly in the way I wrote. The reader said that someone involved in the researcher must be horribly offended at something I wrote. I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case since that particular individual was intimately involved in (and agreed with) the exact section of the paper the reviewer was referring to. Nevertheless, as the years went by, I do realize that when I wrote my dissertation, I was a bit hot-headed. I was trying to be a bit of a trailblazer pushing qualitative analysis at a school that was almost entirely focused on quantitative analysis. That hot-headedness showed itself a bit subtly mostly— being overly defensive, polemic and argumentative, in such things as not using hypotheses, or recognizing the researcher as the main instrument rather than the list of questions for the semi-structured interviews.

Being dispassionate in research writing is not about embracing a relic of the Enlightenment, but understanding that we are emotional beings. We fake being dispassionate in writing so that others can fake being dispassionate, and read it without being triggered into too much pushback.

One of my professors had the joking statement that “Professors have many degrees but little temperature.”

It is funny, but I don’t believe it.

Mulling Weakness Missions

I am considering writing a book— or maybe only an article, we will see— on a model of missions that embraces Weak, Small, and Poor as positive, even defining, characteristics. In line with that, I was looking a bit at Mission from a Position of Weakness by Paul Jeong (American University Studies Series 7— Theology and Religion Vol. 269, New York, Peter Lang, 2007). It looks at Missions from a position of weakness rather than power as consistent with the model given us by Jesus, continued by the early Apostles, and modeled by many missionaries and mission movements since then. I hope soon to read Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry by Timothy G. Gombis. The title of this second one sounds interesting even if I am not convinced the vision is in any way original to Paul. But one can not know a book by either its cover or its title.

Back to Jeong’s book for now, Ed Schroeder wrote a review of the book for the journal “Missiology.” In it he gave a critique of the book where he suggested that it lacked an underlying theological foundation (not unusual in Missions writings). Jeong suggested that there are different ways to do missions, but Weakness is best because it is consistent with the example of Christ. While this Biblical argument may be good, it is incomplete. Jesus did not use satellite communication for spreading His message, but that is not enough to throw out all electronic technology in mission work. Schroeder suggests that Weakness Missions is not only the most Biblical form of Missions, it is the most theologically sound. He suggests that Weakness Missions aligns with Theology of the Cross, while Power Missions aligns with Glory Theology. Glory Theology is oriented towards power and success— seeing the Christian life as progressive towards accumulation of authority and blessing. The Theology of the Cross (consider the writings of Martin Luther) sees ourselves as weak and suffering but in a state of Grace due to what Christ has done on the cross. I will have to look into it a bit more. I am not an expert on any of this, but am aware that Glory Theology is a bit of a “straw man” to contrast Theology of the Cross. It is, however, a straw man that many take as their Christian worldview.

At this time, it seems to me that there are three pretty good arguments for Weakness Missions over Power (money, social control and political coercion, for example) Missions:

  • Biblical (Jesus gave us the example that we are suppose to follow, as well as the example of the apostles that followed the example of Christ.)
  • Theological (God’s Word leads us to an understanding of our living in a state of weakness and suffering that compels us to live and minister in complete dependence on God, rather than on utilizing strategies and forms of influence to coerce others to align with our goals and faith.)
  • Historical/Practical (History has shown that many of the most successful mission movements have followed a model of weakness, not power, and those that successfully utilize power missions often create problems that undermine their short-term success.)

An area that I struggle with is the area of divine power. If we are to rely on God, to what extent is Weakness Missions consistent with things like Power Encounter. There are many who support some form of “Vulnerable Missions” who still also promote miracles/signs as part of the ministry. Biblically, this appears to be sound. Jesus did use miracles— sometimes as an act of compassion, and sometimes as a sign of His authority to give a message. The early Apostles did the same. A look in the Gospels and the Book of Acts shows that (1) there is some ambivalence as to the results of such work, and (2) it seems as if miracles were used more at the start of ministry work and less as time went on.

But my question is whether these should be considered to work against the idea of Weakness Missions. My short-term answer (that may change) is SOMETIMES. I feel that in Missions, promoters of Power Encounter such as Charles Kraft and C. Peter Wagner clearly embraced Power Missions. (It is interesting that Jeong’s book was originally a dissertation at Fuller, a seminary that has had such a major role in promoting Power Missions (in my opinion at least).) I come from a faith tradition that is pretty skeptical of miracles in the present era. While I do believe that a somewhat open-minded skepticism is probably for the best, that doesn’t really answer the question here. If Weakness means demonstrating dependence on the power of God rather than on the power of man, when does the use of God’s power drift from dependence to exploitation and abuse. From New Apostolic Reformation, to preachers in Africa calling down curses on their competition, there is a place where what should be seen as good becomes toxic.

Still mulling this. Hopefully I will have a good tentative answer by the time I am ready to publish something.

My (Tentative) Rules of Interreligious Dialogue

I was starting to develop a list of rules of IRD by applying Grounded Theory Analysis to several other lists developed by others. I completed the first step (Open Coding) and got a ways into the Axial Coding. However, I sort of lost steam at that point and so I came up with a list of Six Rules (or Roles may be better) for good IRD. Some day, I may update these but generally I am quite comfortable with them as they are.

Six Roles in Interreligious Dialogue

#1. Be a Spirit-Led Mediator— Knowing that God is the third member of the conversation: active before, during, and after.

I consider this one to be very important. Strangely, only Max Warren discussed this point directly. Perhaps that is because most of those who were making their lists did not want to give the suggestion that one person is closer to God than another. One, however, does not have to make presumptions of how another person relates to God to recognize one’s role as a mediator, serving God and working with God.

#2. Be a Humble and Curious Learner— from the other and from God, knowing that God may speak to you in the conversation.

As much as you or I are convinced that we have unique access to the truth, we should never assume that we have nothing to learn. We are to be learners as long as we live. Frankly, an inability to express genuine interest in what another cherishes is likely to squelch any interest the other has in what you cherish.

#3. Be a Competent Witness— knowing one’s beliefs and able to express them honestly and with integrity.

Know what you believe and why you believe it. If the other person is truly interested in what you believe (and this is something you should certainly hope) do your homework not only for your own sake, but for the sake of the other.

#4. Be a Respectful Ambassador— demonstrating courtesy at all times and expecting to receive no more or less respect than one gives.

It has been jokingly stated that diplomats manage to say the worst things in the nicest ways. As a Christian dealing with religious beliefs (one of the most intense hot-button issues out there), one must find ways to express truth in courteous ways. If the other person is a person created by God in His own image, and the he or she is sharing his or her deeply treasured beliefs, they truly do deserve your respect. Tied to this role is Mutuality. If one truthfully demonstrates respect in word and deed to the other, one should expect and enforce some level of respect from the other.

#5. Be a Fair and Skilled Interpreter— able to express your beliefs in a manner that is clear and relevant to the other.

It is your job to express your faith in a way that is understandable and relevant to the other. Even though it is the Spirit of God who ultimately illumines his message to the other, it is your job to understand their world from their perspective, and remove barriers that lead to miscommunication or misinterpretation.

#6. Be a Golden Rule Disciple—Speaking, Listening, and (seeking) Understanding as one would desire of the other.

This is the application of the Great Commandment. Regardless of the words or behavior of the other, one is required to follow the example of Christ. Speak and Listen in a manner that you would desire of the other… and try best as one can to understand the other as one would seek the other to try as well.

These roles are aimed more at a Clarification Approach to IRD, as opposed to an Apologetic (Argumentative) approach, or a Relativistic (Common Ground) Approach. I believe such an approach is consistent with a form of evangelism, but does not force all dialogue into a polemic or apologetic form of evangelism. It also accepts that much IRD may not be directly evangelistic at all. Even the most dedicated evangelist needs to learn and listen, to be able to understand the other and effectively interpret.

I believe this approach is also effective for those who do not embrace a primarily evangelistic role, but seek to work with those of other faiths competently, while still “adorning the gospel” (Titus 2:10).

Book Review: “Pursuing the Call” by Danny Lamastra

One thing I like to say, although often fail to practice, is that when trying to teach, one should aim for 50% Information and 50% Inspiration. Information can be gathered through research or personal experience, but Inspiration is a bit harder to attain. I think it is partly a work of God, but also a personal passion, and skill in the art of communication.

With this in mind, I enjoyed the information and inspiration associated with the reading the recent book by Danny Lamastra “Pursuing the Call: A Practical Guide for New and Prospective Missionaries.” (Aneko Press, 2021). The work gives guidance, especially to those early in the journey, in being a vocational missionary. The guidance is tied to his own experience and early on, his personal story provides the structure for the book.

I appreciated his balanced and personal path into missions. While he described his own journey, he also talked about other paths he could have taken, but did not, especially pertaining to mission agencies and support. As one who trains future missionaries, I found his perspective quite helpful. My path was very different from his. He was a single mission candidate who joined a “faith-based” mission agency right out of college. I was married and never went through support raising, sent by my home church, and going into missions as a second (or arguably third) career. I believe Danny Lamastra’s presentation in terms of mission agencies and funding is pretty fair and balanced.

The second half of the book looks at some common issues that relate to new missionaries— issues that are commonly put under the labels of either Missionary Member Care or Missions Anthropology. These include culture shock, burnout, contextualization, spiritual discipline, and health, legal, and tax issues. The guidance is good and peppered with examples that make difficult ideas more clear. Many of the things the writer talks about I would have benefited from in knowing early back around 2003. As self-funded, church-sent missionaries, we kind of “winged it” in many ways. This book would have helped in many ways, especially in terms of health and legal issues.

Truthfully, there is little I would add or change. Maybe I would downplay the value of fasting as a Christian discipline (especially considering the mixed reviews of this practice I get from others and seeing how ambivalent the Bible is to this practice). Maybe I would say, do it if you find it valuable— otherwise, don’t. I would also caution that tithing to one’s local (in-the-field) church fully can be a bad idea if the church is small. Such a church can easily become dependent on the missionary’s giving. It may be better to split up one’s giving— after all, you can bring your tithe to more than one storehouse.

3F (Full-time, Fully funded, Forever) missions is not for everyone. But for those who suspect that God may be leading them on that path should definitely give this book a read.

Who Are The Appropriate Targets of Christian Missions/Evangelism?

Found a nice article today that I had not read before. It was written around 1994. It is on the Missio Nexus website, titled “World Evangelization by AD2000: Will We Make It?” ( The article was written by “Anonymous.” I don’t know who wrote it, actually, but the address for queries suggests that he or she is linked to the International Mission Board of the SBC. Anyway, the article pointed out some things that were problematic in the early 90s with the AD2000 movement. One of these was the artificial due dates. Things have to happen because the time is short— maybe only 24 months. Maybe only 3 or 4 years. There was no real basis for this seemingly. The timeframe appeared to be chosen simply because it sounded inspirational and motivational. I don’t consider that to be particularly excusable and does speak poorly of those who were doing this.

A second concern was that the goals were not measurable. There was no consistent standard or reliable measure for verifying metrics. What makes a group unreached? Standards varied. How does one determine that it is now reached? It is hard to hit a goal (or even be certain of missing a goal) if one can’t agree on what the standards are, and if there is no good way to measure whether these standards have been met.

The third concern was what to do regarding Roman Catholics, Eastern Church groups, and Mainline Christian groups. Many of the mission groups considered such Christians as unreached. The article referenced above pointed out many of the problems associated with this. I would also add that one has to deal with the theological questions associated with excluding at least two-thirds of all Christians from being… Christian. If a person worships the same God and calls upon the same Savior in faith… what beliefs or values would they have that would cancel such faith?

This is not a trivial question. I serve as a missionary in a country that is 90% Christian… around 5% Evangelical Christian. Does this mean 90% of the people in the country I serve are redeemed people bound for paradise? Very doubtful. Does this mean that only 5% are redeemed and the rest are lost? Very doubtful as well.

There are costs to struggling with this issue. As “Anonymous” wrote back in 1994, if much of the resources of a mission agency are being utilized to lead Catholics and Orthodox “to Christ,” it is possible one is not doing any such thing but merely “sheep-stealing.” But if the person was in need of salvation, the question is whether to pressure them to leave their church and join an Evangelical church or remain within their present church. Resources that could be spent on bringing people to Christ who have never heard the good news would be limited because of the internecine conflict.

My view as a missionary in a predominantly Catholic country is not that popular. Usually the argument is that Catholics believe that they need to work for their salvation as well as receive grace through sacraments, so they can’t be saved. Others point out the excesses of iconography and pagan beliefs associated with folk Catholicism are indicators that they are not redeemed. I do believe that these are indeed concerns. However, I think there are better ways to address these than all-out war.

Believe it or not, my focus here is not on trying to convince Protestants and Catholics to get along. It would be nice if they did, but this post is not going to change anything. Rather, my hope is that people will see the cost of this warfare. The biggest one is that it demeans the gospel message. However, when I teach Interreligious Dialogue with other Religions, I find several things keep recurring with seminarians.

#1. The seminarians have little experience talking with people of other non-Christian faiths. In fact, when I tell my students to have a rich conversation with a non-Christian, I commonly have to say over and over and over that Catholics don’t count (as qualifying as a non-Christian for the assignment). Finally, I end up saying something like, “I need you to have a conversation with a person from a faith that has NO roots in Historic Christianity.” Alternatively, I may broaden things to “I need you to have a conversation with a person that is from a non-Nicene faith group.” If I don’t I will invariable get people who will give me a dialogue with a Catholic friend. This just perpetuates the communication barrier with non-Christians.

#2. The seminarians, when they seek to share their faith with another, will almost always drift into a presentation that is designed to get nominal Christians or non-Evangelical Christians to say the Sinner’s Prayer. Regardless of whether you think this is good or bad, the point I am making is that they will then do this even with those from completely non-Christian backgrounds. Therefore, their presentation presupposes a Christian or Jewish conception of God, and a Christian understanding of who Jesus is and the authority of the Bible. Little time or effort is made to know what other groups think, or what their hopes and fears are. They prefer the “low-hanging fruit” of reaching someone who already agrees with everything the seminarian already believes, getting them to express their faith in a slightly different way.

Does this mean I believe that Evangelicals should never reach out to non-Evangelical Christian groups. No. But I would suggest the following:

A. Don’t approach members of these groups antagonistically, or focusing on drawing them away from their church. We were working with a Catholic nun, when a member of her religious order came up to visit to make sure that we were not trying to pull her out of the her order and her church. At the time I thought that was ridiculous. I was convinced of her personal faith in Christ so why would I seek to undermine that trying to cast doubt on her community. Later, however, I discovered that the pastor at our church was actively trying to get her leave her community and join his church.

B. Speak openly and honestly (and gently) about the similarities and difference of our faith traditions. Take BOTH the similarities and the differences seriously.

C. Have some humility. There is a lot of things messed up in every branch of the Christian “tree.” Each group needs a bit of healthy soul-searching before pointing out the mote in the eye of another. Relatedly, don’t be sure you know exactly who is redeemed and who is not. God knows… because God knows the heart and God knows whose is His own. We don’t. Therefore, we should not act like we do.

D. Since we don’t know who is saved (both Christians who are quite similar to us and those quite different) rather than focusing on salvation… focus on bringing people closer to Christ. (Hiebert would describe this as related to a ‘center set’ approach.) In other words, for those who are self-described Christians, focus on discipleship and let the Holy Spirit convict based on His true understanding, rather than our convicting based on our own prejudices and presumptions.

You might be asking, if I am in a country that is 90% Christian (by self-identification) and I believe that Evangelicals really should not focus on evangelizing self-identified Christians (at least not as a primary activity), why am I here? Shouldn’t I be somewhere else? Possibly. However, my ministry is training Christians in Asia for reaching out to non-Christians in Asia. Doing so in Asia actually makes a lot of sense, I believe. Perhaps I could do it in a Christian-minority country, but at this point in time, those who live in such countries have been able to come to where I live for training. Additionally, the country I live in is one that is transitioning into a missionary sending country. As such, I think it is a good place to be.