Multi-Dimensional Evangelism

I received an email asking if I had developed any more my idea of the Evangelism Cube— a fairly simple idea I had written up back in 2010. My answer was essentially, “NO.” However, I had actually written a bit more about this topic in my book, “Ministry in Diversity,” which I put together for my Cultural Anthropology students. However, since I no longer have it available for purchase on the Internet (I feel I have to fix too many things in it), it is not all that available right now.

Because of that, I am cutting and pasting the section of the book on the topic of the Evangelism Cube here.

Multi-Dimensional Evangelism

Zero-Dimensional Evangelism

The term “evangelism” (“euangelizo”) has gone through many stages in understanding its meaning. The Greek root of this term seems to limits it to “proclamation” or the sharing of good news. Within the Christian context, it would cover sharing the good news of Christ to people. We could call this “zero-dimensional evangelism” since it is simply a point in time and space. It is simply a call to allegiance to Christ, which is then either accepted or rejected. Many limit their use of the term “evangelism” to this sense.

One-Dimensional Evangelism

In its usage in the Bible and in the early church, the term is applied more broadly, and commonly includes discipleship, not limiting itself to the conversion experience in the hearer.7 Evangelism has been extended from a point (zero-dimension) back to a line (one-dimension) by James Engel who created what is now known as the Engel’s Scale.8 (See Figure 28.) Evangelism is cognitive work that moves the listener from a state of rejection towards belief and discipleship. Therefore, helping someone go from complete ignorance of God to understanding who God is in relationship to herself is part of evangelism. Anything that cognitively assists the hearer to move up the scale then can be identified as evangelism.

Figure 28. Engel’s Scale

Figure 29. Gray’s Matrix

Two-Dimensional Evangelism

Two-Dimensional Evangelism is found in the Gray Matrix (See Figure 29) developed by Frank Gray. He noted that evangelism should not be thought of as simply a cognitive process. There is also an affective (emotions/values) component. This means that helping someone move from being hostile to God and the gospel to having a favorable opinion is also part of evangelism. Moving anyone from the lower left towards the upper right in the 2-D matrix is evangelism.9

Three-Dimensional Evangelism

But this begs the question of a third dimension. In education, one can speak of training students cognitively (knowledge and understanding), affectively (feelings, values, and identity), and behaviorally (skills, competencies, and habits). Engel’s Scale is cognitive (1-dimensional). Gray’s Matrix is cognitive and affective (2-dimensional). But could evangelism be thought of as 3-Dimensional… or an Evangelism Cube? Could one add a behavioral component. One could argue that salvation does not have a behavioral component since salvation is a matter of faith not works. Yet the same argument might be made regarding the other two dimensions. If it is about faith, it is not about correct thinking or correct feelings. But since part of our role as Christians is to be conformed behaviorally to Christ and to guide others in the same direction, then behavior certainly is a component in effective evangelism.

Why does this matter… or does it matter? How we picture things guides how we do things. Some see evangelism as a dot. Get people to say the sinner’s prayer and that is good enough. I have seen all sorts of methods used to try to get a person to say (or parrot) the sinner’s prayer. Some are little more than trickery, or simply stating what they have long had in faith, but expressed in a slightly different way. When the person has done this, the “witness” feels that he has done the work of an evangelist. But has he? Consider the experience of a missionary friend of mine. Back before he had yet gained competency in Arabic, some Muslim neighbors tried to trick him into saying the Shahada (Islamic statement of faith) three times. Why? Because they believed that the act of saying it three times would make him a Muslim. (This is not an orthodox Islamic belief.) While we may find that humorous, as these Muslim neighbors did, those who believe that saying the sinner’s prayer makes one a Christian (regardless of intent, heart, or faith) are guilty of the same confusion. Clearly, Evangelism has greater depth than getting people to say words. There is an associated change of heart, mind, and behavior as well.

Those that see evangelism as a line work with people through the cognitive challenges of faith and continue after a conversion experience towards becoming a faithful servant of God. Those that see evangelism as two-dimensional are concerned with values and emotions. They are concerned with “decorating the gospel” (Titus 2:10) to not only make it intellectually palatable but desirable to the heart. They share not only what is true, but do it in a way that is respectful and helpful (I Peter 3:15).

Three-dimensional evangelism is concerned not only with the cognitive side and the affective side, but the behavioral side as well— helping them conform themselves to Christ. Since many behaviors can be destructive and a hindrance, behavioral guidance may begin even before conversion and continue long past. See Figure 30.

Figure 30. The Evangelism Cube

In sharing the gospel in a different, and potentially hostile culture, it is likely that all three dimensions are needed. They need to encounter the truth of the Gospel (some might call this “truth encounter.”) They also need to see that the Gospel is a good or desirable thing. Commonly, but not strictly, this is demonstrated through “love encounter” — divine love demonstrated by the Christians in such a way that unbeliever’s gain a positive view of Christianity and the Christian message. A friend of mine was a Muslim man who lived in a predominantly Muslim country, but worked for a foreigner who was Christian. One day, his boss invited him to a Bible study. My friend gladly accepted, and later became a Christian. However, he told me that he did not join the Bible study because of any interest in Christianity or the Bible. He joined because he had greatly respected his boss, and so was quite open to whatever he valued.

In many (all?) cultures, people respond in faith only after experiencing faith in action. In many shame-based cultures, people become involved in a church, and participating in church life, long before they decide to become a Christian. It also seems to be true that all over the world, people are more prone to “try before you buy.” They want to see both the Christian life lived out in front of them, as well as participate in the Christian life before actually deciding to become a Christian. In such cases, the discipling cycle seems backwards— they participate in the church or study group, learn to obey Christ, and then accept Him and be baptized into the church body.

Care must be made to ensure that God’s Message is not undermined by the other dimensions. Actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes. All of this is not to say that God cannot work simply through sharing the gospel. Salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather, the point is that evangelism should be seen as having many dimensions…. it has a cognitive component, an affective component, and a behavioral component. When sharing the gospel in a different culture, extra care must be made to ensure that God’s Message is not undermined by the other dimension.

Endnotes

7David B. Barrett. Evangelism! A Historical Survey of the Concept (New Hope, 1987). This book goes into the Greek word where we get the English term Evangelize and shows that, while its etymology suggests a narrow range of meanings, it is quite broad in its usage. Evangelism may be required to include the proclamation of Christ’s good news, it can also include a lot more things as well.

8James F. Engel, Contemporary Christian Communications: Its Theory and Practice (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1979).

9For more information, go to http://www.thegraymatrix.org.

Paradoxical Ad Strategy

I am sure there is a nice term for this, but since I am not involved in marketing, I don’t know what it is. But here are a few examples.

  • A Christian theologian who I really appreciate moved his personal blog onto Patheos. Of course, Patheos has a LOT of advertisements on the webpage they provide. This theologian’s Patheos page is full of really cringy ads such as one related to divination (through one’s “personal angel”) or attempts to lure readers to some pretty sketchy groups that are definitely outside of historical Christianity.
  • I was watching a very popular video on problems with NFTs and cryptocurrency. Youtube had advertisements on that video for various cryptocurrency vehicles.
  • I was viewing a Q&A on a financial management website. There were a number of advertisements attached to it that recommended things that that website oppose.
  • Not long ago, the musical “The Book of Mormon” was quite popular, and the LDS (largest Mormon group) advertised their religion targeting those who went to this show that was humorously adversarial and mocking of that faith.

MLMs advertising on programs that oppose MLMs and more are out there. Why is that? At first it seems rather ridiculous. After all, if I am watching a show that does a good job of dismantling the logic behind NFTs, wouldn’t I be especially turned off by any group that is promoting that product? Probably, YES. However, that is not the point.

Suppose I want to sell people a Perpetual Motion (PM) device. (Such a device doesn’t exist, by the way.) Where would I try to market it. If I just set up a website for it, very few people would end up there, unless, I have some way of drawing them in. But suppose there is a science show (Youtube or some other media service) that has an episode that shows clearly why PM devices are impossible. One might think this is a bad place to advertise. After all, they are shown how foolish and impossible your product is. But there is a different way of looking at it. Many of the people who view this show are convinced by the show of the infeasibilty of PM devices. Actually, more likely they were already convinced that PM devices are impossible because they violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. However, there are still likely to be many people who are more casually interested in the topic. These people one might call “Seekers,” or those who are interested in the topic of PM devices but may not have firm convictions. Some may even be believers in PM devices. It is likely that that there is a higher percentage of Believers and Seekers who view the show than there are in the general populace. As such, the advertisement is probably effective.

The same could be said with the other examples above. It seems a bit silly at first to advertise in a place that is actively hostile to what you are advertising… but upon further consideration, the people who show up there are probably more likely to be intrigued by your advertisement than the average person.

So what does that mean in terms of Christian ministry. Christians have often sought to use their group influence to shut down perspectives that are offensive to Christians (in societies where they have a dominant role). Maybe, however, instead of opposing them… support them. Support them by advertising with them. It is likely that a higher percentage of Seekers exist in a place that is attacking Christianity than where religion is not addressed.

I gave this example before. Several years ago, I took my son to an MMA fight in Baguio City. The fight is a blood sport (technically) and as such is rather questionable (at least to many). At the activity, there was a heavy metal band playing, among other things, AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells,” ring girls in revealing outfits (revealing by Philippine standards anyway), Colt 45 beer being heavily promoted and given away, and generally a setting that many Christians would not be comfortable with. In that setting, right after the music and the beer give-away, the regular part of the event with an Invocation. A pastor came forward and did a prayer blessing the fight and all those who participated in it. I have often wondered if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I have kind of come to the conclusion that if I was asked to do the invocation I would decline the offer (gently). However, I am glad that a pastor DID accept the offer and remind people that God is with them and seeks to protect and bless. It seems kind of contrary to logic… but where people are struggling to be thrilled with the common cultural alternatives (sex, violence, booze, music, and spectacle), it may be exactly the right place to get them to think about God… even if for a moment.

But what about us? Is there a danger in the silly advertisements that show up tied to legitimate and instructional media? Yes. Illegitimate groups seek legitimacy in the minds of viewers through advertisements. Doing this (like using similar terminology and seeming to claim the same authorities) give a false association. This is especially true when the advertisement pretends to agree with the media it is attached to.

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.

References:

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.

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).

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?” (https://missionexus.org/world-evangelization-by-a-d-2000-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.

Reasons for an Evangelist to Take IRD Seriously

Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD) is often looked at critically, or straight-up negatively by Evangelicals. I teach a course called “Dialogue with Asian Faiths” and for me, I take the title seriously. It is about dialogue (two-way) conversation with people of other faiths— especially the great world religions that have their origin in Asia (which is pretty much all of them).

Many times when people join the class I ask why they want to take the class. I am given different answers, but commonly the answer given is, “I want to be more effective in evangelizing people of other faiths.” This is a bit of a challenge, because that is not the primary purpose of the course. And as we get further into the course, some of those students get uncomfortable, as I suggest that:

  • Good dialogue is not built on argument.
  • Good dialogue is not agenda driven.
  • Good dialogue is more focused on creating mutual understanding.

But I am an Evangelical as well in historical terms (ignoring some toxic elements that have crept in over time). As such, I do believe that evangelism is a normal part of the Christian faith, and so one does not need to be embarrassed or uncomfortable about one’s desire to lead non-Christians to Christ. Some people who value IRD believe that dialogue is directly in conflict with evangelism.

I believe that positive dialogue with people of other faiths is important, even necessary, for all Christians, and even more so for those involved in Christian ministry. However, I would like to share some reasons that I believe that Inter-religious Dialogue is valuable for a Christian Evangelist.

Before I do, I need to clarify that I believe good Inter-religious Dialogue, IRD, is a balance between two extremes. At one extreme is an Apologetic view. Dialogue is focusing on differences in hopes to make Christianity appear good and true and the other religion bad and wrong. In other words, Dialogue is pretty much only to change the other person’s mind. The other extreme I would call the “Common Ground” approach. Instead of focusing on the differences between Christianity and other religions, one focuses on the similarities and downplays the differences. Usually this includes a certain relativization of belief, assuming that both sides are seekers of truth but not necessarily possessors of truth. In other words, Dialogue is not only NOT evangelistic, but evangelism would be a violation of the principles of IRD. I take a middle ground, where IRD seeks to clarify BOTH similarities and differences. Additionally, IRD is quite open to share one’s cherished beliefs in hopes that the other converts, but also open to the possibility of learning from the other.

Additionally, however, I am contrasting the form of IRD also with the most common form of evangelism today, which is canned presentations (Romans Road, Hand Illustration, Four Spiritual Laws, Bridge Illustration, EE, etc.)

Okay, with that out of the way, reasons I believe that Inter-religious Dialogue is valuable for a Christian Evangelist.

#1. It takes truth seriously. Some speak of evangelism as “Truth Encounter.” If that is an accurate term, Jesus is seen as the way and the TRUTH and the life, and the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, an Evangelist should be deeply concerned about truth. First, it establishes a promising foundation of truth. In US courts, witnesses are supposed to take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The extremes HOPEFULLY tell the truth, but not the whole truth. The Apologetic approach often ignores areas of sizable agreement, while the Common Ground approach minimizes or even ignores potentially important differences. Second, in talking to the other seriously, dialogically, one is more likely to learn truth (truth in terms of that which is actually true, and truth in terms of that which is actually believed).

2. IRD establishes a better foundation for the evangelism encounter. The Common Ground approach may be relationally friendly, but the ‘bracketing off” of treasured faith perspectives and other differences means that the relationship developed is likely to be a bit artificial. In the Apologetics approach, the relationship is essentially antagonistic. Neither is ideal. Proper IRD should be friendly and still rich in its complexity. People tend to response more to warmth than to brutal logic anyway.

3. IRD is more likely to “scratch where it itches.” Evangelism is not targeting people groups or religions. It is targeting individuals. We are not trying to “Save Souls” if one is using the term ‘soul’ in any way less than the total person in their cultural and familial setting. IRD is not a canned presentation but deals with the individual and seeks to understand him or her, including (but not limited to) his or her hopes and fears. Nicodemus did not need to hear about the “Unknown God.” The Woman at the Well did not need to be challenged with the metaphor of being ‘born from above.’ The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Mars Hill did not need to hear about water that will quench one’s thirst forever.

4. IRD takes a lot of fear away in talking to others. This is especially true in contrast to an Apologetic/Argumentative stance. In this stance, one must be always able to give a sound response to every challenge, and give as good as one gets. It is much like fencing with effective thrusts and parries. If one does not feel up to that task, one goes into a canned evangelistic presentation that seeks to prevent the other person from interacting except in a fairly predictable manner. However, with the Clarification approach to IRD, “I Don’t Know” or “You have a good point” are perfectly acceptable. In fact, it may help. If an agnostic says, “So if there is an all-powerful loving God watching over us, why are there deadly natural disasters?” giving some clever (and doubtful) response is likely to drive the other away. On the other hand, a “I really don’t know… what do you think” is likely to be seen as more honest and engaging.

5. IRD is not dependent on the particular hearer. Most canned presentations (pretty much all presentations except one’s own personal testimony) target a specific hearer. Most of them really are not even an evangelism tool at all, but a way of presenting one’s Christian faith tradition in such a way as to hopefully be attractive to a person of a different Christian faith tradition. Most presentations work on the baseline presumption that the person believes that the Bible is God’s Word, there is only one God, and Jesus should be loved and obeyed. With these as common ground in those most likely to respond to the canned presentations, it is questionable as to whether these are primarily evangelism presentations or denominational presentations. Canned presentations that do indeed target those who are not Christians typically have unique features that would hopefully connect to a typical _________ (Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist, etc.). Nothing wrong with this, but IRD is not dependent on the particular hearer. The main qualities are that they are human, they share a common language, and they are willing to connect with you in conversation. The evangelist may not know the sort of points that are likely to be taken seriously by the other person, but that is okay. Over time, this will be clear— and will be true for the individual, not for the group you may assume the individual fits into.

Using Non-Christian Works to Lead People to Christ?

A friend of mine is writing a paper on the use of the Qur’an as part of the evangelization process of Muslims. In his research he got some pushback. Some feel that it is inappropriate for a Christian to use a non-canonical work (obviously using the term ‘canonical’ from the Christian rather than Muslim perspective).

I don’t real see the problem, and I will get back to that later. However, there are some good reasons not to use the Qur’an that should be acknowledged.

  1. Some may get offended by a non-Muslim utilizing a Muslim holy book. Some Christians may get offended by a non-Christian utilizing a Christian holy book. There is not much to say about that, but it should be acknowledged that this can happen.
  2. More commonly, some Muslims may get offended if their holy book is misused or poorly interpreted by a non-Muslim. I must admit that I get the concern. Some Muslims like to promote their faith based on the argument that Jesus predicted the coming of their founding prophet. They see Jesus sending the “Comforter” as not being the Holy Spirit, but their prophet. I do get annoyed by that since the broader context of the book of John makes it pretty clear that their interpretation does not “hold water.” Perhaps I shouldn’t take it personally, but I don’t like it when people cherry pick Scripture passages from the Holy Bible to support a dubious claim (especially when sound interpretation practices undermine the argument). Actually, there is a method for presenting the Gospel to Muslims that utilizes the Qur’an in a way I don’t wholly approve of. Some of it is okay, but a couple of the canned responses from the evangelist I feel misuses the Qur’an. While as a Christian I am not all that worried about misusing a non-Christian text, I feel that many Muslims WOULD take offense. The answer, in my mind, is not to avoid using the Qur’an, but to do so fairly and competently. That often would mean interpreting in line with the best Muslim scholarship of their book. However, since the information on Jesus in the Qur’an is not always particularly consistent, at least be fair and considerate in the inconsistency.
  3. While the Qur’an points strongly to a fairly high view of Jesus, the message is muddled. Taking the passages as a whole, Jesus seems to be more than human, but also less than divine. Additionally, Jesus might be said to be a savior in a general sense, but certainly not in an ultimate sense. The Qur’an agrees on a number of things from the canonical Gospels (while disagreeing on some key things), and also draws from some more fanciful works like the Infancy Gospel of Jesus. In the end, the Quranic view of Jesus is a mixed and inconsistent bag. Using the Qur’an to support a high view of Jesus may be valuable, but understand that the Quranic view is decidedly ‘low’ in contrast to Biblical sections like John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1, and Philippians 2 (for example). It may make sense to use the Qur’an at the start, but it should not be the end of training.

However, if one embraces a Center-Set understanding of Christianity, the use of the Qur’an makes sense. The idea of sets comes from Paul Hiebert. A bounded set understanding of Christianity focuses on the boundary of what it means to be Christian. Christians may vary on what the boundary is, but most think the boundary is important. For some it is based on denomination… a particularly poor boundary. Others may be based on a creed. I think that has a better grounding. For Evangelicals, we tend to see the boundary as “Redeemed” (inside) versus “Unredeemed” (outside). One problem with this is that we are not given access to this knowledge— only God knows who is redeemed. Regardless, those who embrace a bounded set understanding of Christianity would tend to avoid using the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita or any other text that is clearly “outside the boundary.” On the other hand, a centered-set understanding of Christianity focuses on the center, not the boundary. We may not always know where the boundary is, but we know what the center is— Jesus Christ. Growing in our faith means moving closer to Christ. With this understanding, an “outsider text” that helps initially to move people towards Christ is a good thing.

So, I believe there is value in knowing outsider works that outsiders value.

Let me use a very different example. (I have may have written on this example before on this website.)——- Many years ago, a great aunt of mine passed away. I and many of my relatives went to the funeral. My great aunt was a member of a church and her pastor led the funeral service. He was one who understood his role, in part at least, to share present the gospel during the service. Personally, I am not sure that was his job, but perhaps I am wrong. However, he started sharing “scientific proofs” of God. One of my relatives was an atheist and he tended to see Science and Christianity in stark contrast. It was pretty clear that the pastor was targeting his presentation to that person specifically.

Targeting one’s presentation to the beliefs and worldview of a specific person is commendable. But there was a problem with his presentation. He really did not know much science. Perhaps he listened to a sermon on science or read some gospel tract about science and faith. He, however, did not know much on science. Because of this, my assumption was that the message he gave would have the opposite effect of what was intended. Certainly my relative did not convert to Christianity after this presentation. If anything, it may have confirmed his own (non-theistic) faith seeing Christianity as unscientific, naive, and perhaps a bit foolish.

A pastor who studied scientific works (in the present, not just the science of decades or centuries ago) and understood the principles of scientific inquiry would, I believe, be better positioned to express Christ in a way that a naturalist or skeptic would be more likely to value. Of course, one eventually must move toward the Bible… but the start needs to be in what starts the movement toward Christ. Quoting

If that is true of someone from a naturalist, ‘scientific,’ or atheistic worldview would be better brought to Christ from someone knowledgeable of, and competent in utilizing scientific works than someone ignorant in the same, it seems pretty reasonable that the same would make sense for other worldviews. Again, we must end with Christ (as revealed by God) but we may need to start in a very different place— close to where they are at.

“Enoughness” Part One

I was listening to the podcast “The Missions Podcast” (by ABWE). They had a guest, E.D. Burns, who wrote a book called “The Transcultural Gospel: Jesus Is Enough for Sinners in Cultures of Shame, Fear, Bondage, and Weakness.” I have not read the book, it just came out, but here are a few quick thoughts before I delve into a tangent.

  1. I liked his emphasis on “scandal” of the gospel. Burns seems to suggest that some proponents of contextualization (he focuses not on primary proponents so much as over-exuberant adopters) are so focused on making the gospel palatable that key challenges are ignored. This is certainly true in the Philippines where some presentations say, in essence, “Oh, you already believe the gospel fully— but you aren’t saved until you say this little prayer that I have here.” If there was no change of heart or mind, they were either already saved, or they are not saved in saying the prayer.
  2. I sort of like his reframing “Guilt-Innocence” in terms of “Guilt-Righteousness.” His argument was that Innocence means that one is NOT a lawbreaker, while Righteousness means that one is declared a lawkeeper (through imputation). I like the reframing, as I said, but I don’t care for the reason. I like Ladd’s perspective of Righteousness in terms of “Right Relationship With God.” As such, Righteousness is the opposite of a lot of the cultural motivators. Guilt is countered by righteousness (meeting the standards of God). Honor is countered by righteousness ((re)establishment of role as a chosen and welcome member of God’s family). Disharmony is countered by righteousness (removal of conflict with God). But then, if righteousness works for so many of the categories, maybe it is not useful to link righteousness to only one category. So maybe I don’t like this point.
  3. I liked his approach of sharing the gospel in a new culture by seeking to learn what the felt needs are within that culture. The gospel meets many needs— both real and felt. By discovering the felt needs, you honor the person, honor the culture, and honor the gospel (by embracing its breadth of transformation and needs-meeting). It helps ensure the gospel scratches where it itches.
  4. I don’t really get Burns’s bringing everything back to Adam and then pushing forward to the “Second Adam.” This may simply be a personal thing, but the illustration never had much of an impact on me. I certainly know that Paul uses it and there is certainly nothing wrong with it. However, if after years and years of Bible reading, Sunday school and Bible classes, I have found this metaphor unenlightening, why would I assume that I am alone in this? I am glad I did not have gospel presented to me in that way.
  5. I was a bit concerned that there still was a bit of a tendency to see guilt as a superior or primary need. I felt that the conversants danced around it a bit. However, Burns appeared to argue that the metaphors used by Paul (especially in terms of law and guilt) drew deeply Jewish OT stories and images. This was used to suggest a bit of primacy of this metaphor and perhaps a transcultural nature to this metaphor. I couldn’t really see the point. First, most of the metaphors have an OT connection… not just one metaphor. I find adoption to be a strong metaphor in the NT. It isn:t made stronger or weaker if it was used in OT Jewish culture. Second, since much of the early church was connected to Jewish culture and writings, the use of these images in the NT, may not support a transcultural gospel, but a gospel presentation contextualized to Hellenistic Jews.

Since I have not read the book, I can’t say whether my comments (positive and negative) stand up. The book may clarify things. It certainly looks worthy of a read> But one term I liked was THE ENOUGHNESS OF THE GOSPEL.

While ENOUGHNESS is a made-up word, I think it holds a bit of usefulness in missions anthropology and contextualization of the gospel. Based on the podcast, I am pretty sure I am using the expression differently, but that is okay. I think Burns is saying that there is ENOUGH similarities between different cultures and people that the gospel message doesn’t need to be contextualized all that much. Probably some truth there, but I would like to play with the term… IN PART TWO.

Should Missionaries be Evangelists?

So I was talking to a friend of mine named Tom (his name is NOT Tom) who is a minister in an Asian Country where Christians are a tiny minority. He was talking about mission work in his country. He noted that missionaries had brought a lot of good things to his country… such as hospitals, church buildings, and community development projects— among other things.

However, he said that one way missionaries haven’t been that helpful have been in terms of Evangelism. He noted that foreign missionaries are not all that good at evangelizing people in his country… because they are foreign. He noted, that in some rural areas, they have had some success in gifting the poor with things they need and these poor respond, converting and joining the church. Later, however, when the missionaries are gone, the gifts stop or slowly break down, and the people drift back into their community’s majority faith.

Of course I have heard this before… even here in the Philippines where many Filipinos are comfortable with English, and the there is commonly enough Bible literacy so that the American-style gospel presentations are effective. (I will not address the question of whether these presentations lead people to Christ, or bring people who are already saved to a different denomination.) It is well understood here that Filipinos are better at evangelizing than foreigners. Foreigners are not that effective even with other religions. I mean, even the American Mormon boys (and girls) sent to the Philippines to proselytize their own message are more and more often matched up with Filipinos. It is entertaining to listen to American youth stumbling through the Mormon message in Tagalog or Visayan or Ilocano, but it is simply not that compelling. The biggest mosque here in our city has worked very hard to fund local boys so that they can train them to evangelize their Tawhid to others here. There are many foreign Muslims here… but few if any have any impact in the presentation of their faith.

But if Christian Missionaries are not good Evangelists, is this a new thing? No. Apparently, Occam (a Native American) was a much better evangelist to Native Americans than Wheelock (a European) in the 1700s. In the 1800s, Karen Evangelists were more effective in sharing the gospel than their American counterparts. Of course, one may go back to 1st century missionaries, such as Philip and Paul and Barnabas in hopes of finding something different. However, in these cases, these missionaries were reaching out to people who were not that different from themselves (E-1 or at most E-2). Paul and Barnabas were Hellenistic Jews from Asia Minor and Cyprus, who reached out to Hellenistic Jews and Hellenistic Gentiles in Asia Minor and Cyprus. Philip, presumably a Proselyte to Judaism before becoming a Christian, reached out to Samaritans (who shared the language used by the Jews, and almost all of the beliefs of the Jews), and a (presumably) proselyte to Judaism from Ethiopia. Their effectiveness, outside of divine empowerment, was linked to the commonality of language and culture.

So let’s look at it a different way. Consider three settings where a Missionary can Serve.

#1 is Where the Church IS NOT. (No viable church within the region, or culture)

#2 is Where the Church HAS NOT. (The local church may be weak or young and needs help to empower them to carry out its work.)

#3 is Where the Church CANNOT. (The local church may be strong, but still lacks unique capacities such as ability to support radio transmission, publishing, medical services, and so forth.)

So what should the role of Missionary as Evangelist be in these three situations?

For #1. Of course, The missionary is an apostle in the classic sense— sent into a place where the church is not. As such, his (or her) role is to proclaim God’s message of love, and draw those who seek to follow Christ to come together as church bodies. Yes, such a missionary pioneer should evangelize, but really should focus on training new believers to evangelize and then move to new roles of discipling and leader development so that the missionary (as soon as possible) is not needed there.

For #2. Maybe. The Missionary MIGHT be needed to evangelize occasionally— especially if the local church has not embraced its role as a proclaimer of the gospel in its area. But such a role should be very temporary and cautious. After all, even a young church can have young believers who can effectively evangelize. Thus, if it is not happening, having missionaries do the job can easily maintain an unhealthy dependence on missionaries. In fact, that unsatisfactory condition may exist because missionaries as pioneers focused too much on evangelizing and not on encouraging that role to be passed on to locals.

For #3. No. Every church can evangelize. The local church may not be able to establish a publishing house, or operate a counseling center, but they can share their faith with others. Missionaries doing the evangelism in these settings is unhealthy… except as simply a fellow participant with local Christians.

Tom when noting all the good things that missionaries brought to their country noted one thing that they really did not bring. They did not establish seminaries. Mission groups come over to evangelize, and they come in to teach locals how to share their faith like a foreigner. But they did not help establish schools for locals to be trained to contextualize/localize the Christian faith… and remove their scholarly dependence on foreigners.

A few years ago, I was investigating joining a major mission agency. At the time this agency was moving away from theological education and developmental ministries, and seeking missionaries who had a strong “evangelistic spirit” and focused on rapid church multiplication.

On the surface, this seems so right… but I think it is flawed. Most countries don’t need a bunch of foreign evangelizers coming in with big dreams of saturation strategies and CPMs. Are these things wrong? Probably not. However, Big Dream Missions (DAWN, AD2000, and other such missionary-driven movements) promise much but tend to deliver little. The biggest movements come from small groups of local Christians faithfully doing small things to transform their small places.

So should Missionaries be Evangelists? Sometimes, but few if any should have it as their primary passion. The vast majority should be passionately motivated to empower local Christians and local churches to reach their Spirit-empowered potential.

Choosing Between the Sinner’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer

I was listening to a podcast of N.T. Wright. He was talking about Evangelism. In it he spoke somewhat negatively about “The Sinner’s Prayer.” He suggested that when a person decides to follow Christ, that saying the Lord’s Prayer may be a better choice than the Sinner’s Prayer.

We probably need to step backwards and say something that SHOULD be obvious, but sadly isn’t—-

NO ONE IS SAVED BY SAYING THE SINNER’S PRAYER.

We are saved by faith. That faith may be expressed in a shorthand way with the Sinner’s Prayer, but if a person had saving faith in Christ but did not say the Sinner’s Prayer, that person would still be saved. And a person who said the Sinner’s Prayer but did not have faith would not be saved. In other words, the Sinner’s Prayer has no power to make effective salvation.

Some go further and argue that the Sinner’s Prayer is un-Biblical. I think that is taking it too far. The Bible does tell us to choose who to follow and the path to take. The Bible does tell us to “call on the Lord” and to “confess Jesus as Lord.” All of these are consistent with the Sinner’s Prayer, even if the prayer is not specifically mentioned in the Bible.

The problem is when the Sinner’s Prayer is treated like an incantation. An incantation is a word or phrase that is believed to have power of itself to create change either on its own, or by compelling a spiritual being to act. In other words, it is magic. I get that. I have thought that way. When I was 7 years old, I said the Sinner’s Prayer in my room at home with no one else around. For the next few months I wondered whether I was saved or not. “What if I said it wrong?” At least twice more I said the Sinner’s Prayer as best I could remember, hoping that I “got it right.” Eventually I figured out that my salvation was in my faith and determination to follow Jesus, NOT in saying some words the right way.

But I have met people who have struggled with the meaning of the Sinner’s Prayer. One person I knew was told that she must not be saved because she doesn’t remember whether she said the Sinner’s Prayer— despite the fact that she had many times expressed her faith in Christ and actively sought to serve Him faithfully. I have known other people who assure a person over and over again that they are saved and secure because that repeated some words in the past, not considering whether the person meant the words he said or whether he has faith now. Rather than saying that the Sinner’s Prayer is un-Biblical, I would rather say that it is theologically dubious.

The Sinner’s Prayer has different forms but it generally has some common elements.

  • Admitting to being a sinner
  • Seeking forgiveness from God through Jesus Christ
  • Asking to be saved by Christ

Some would add other things like saying that they were saved through the ‘blood of Christ’ embracing the metaphor of penal substitutionary atonement. Some statements expressly say that Jesus is Lord of the person’s life. Others seem to embrace a lower standard, more akin to intellectual assent.

Instead of looking at the merits or lack of merits of the Sinner’s Prayer directly as something to do when one becomes saved, let’s instead compare it to saying the Lord’s Prayer.

#1. Both the Sinner’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer share the common elements. Both describe admitting to being a sinner. Both express the wish to be forgiven by God. both express desire to be saved by God (delivered from Evil).

#2. The Lord’s Prayer also expresses the broader Sinner’s Prayer that vocalizes the desire for God to be Lord in the pray-er’s life (“Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”)

#3. The Lord’s Prayer is more than an entreaty. It is also an act of worship— expressing that God’s name is to hallowed. And the longer version has more worship language (“For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever).

#4. The Lord’s Prayer is less self-focused than the Sinner’s Prayer. While it does entreat of God for self— it also entreats for others and for all creation.

And these are all good things. Since the Lord’s Prayer covers the elements of the Sinner’s Prayer… and more, it does seem a bit unclear why the Sinner’s Prayer was artificially created for a person to say at salvation. It seems pretty unnecessary. Nothing wrong with it I guess. It is true that the Lord’s Prayer does get overused in church, I can imagine it being looked down on by Evangelists fearing it to be “vain repetition.” However, I see little reason to think it is likely to be more meaningless than the Sinner’s Prayer at times.

I do have three more reasons that I definitely think push the Lord’s Prayer across the finish line as the better choice.

#5. The Lord’s Prayer is given by Jesus to His disciples. Even though we may call it “The Lord’s Prayer,” it is probably better understood as “The Disciple’s Prayer.” So when one decides to submit to Christ as Savior and Lord, one is choosing to be a disciple of Christ. What is more natural than to express that decision by saying “The Disciple’s Prayer”?

#6. The Lord’s Prayer has throughout Church history been seen as a prayer of community. Even in my own faith tradition, that tends to be highly skeptical of set prayers, the Lord’s Prayer is still respected as a recitation to be done by the faith community. (I have, however, met a few who are legalistically opposed to any prayer or recitation that is not extemporaneous. A bit strange.) When a person follows Christ, she is not just “getting saved.” She is becoming a part of the community. What is more natural than for the evangelizer to say the Lord’s Prayer with the new believer as an act of Christian Community. When the evangelizer tells that new converst to “repeat after me” the Sinner’s Prayer, the evangerlizer is not really praying because he is presumably already saved. But with the Lord’s Prayer, both can pray it with relevance. They both can say it with meaning, much like a young alcoholic and the seasoned sponsor can both state the Serenity Prayer with equal conviction in AA.

#7. The Lord’s Prayer, if done this way, as a symbol of salvation would add meaning in the liturgical use of the prayer. Now it is not only a reminder of being a disciple of Christ and part of the community of Christ. It is also a commemoration of the salvation experienced by each member of the body.