…And Then Sometimes They Just Get It

I teach a class in Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). Since I am a Missions professor at an Evangelical missionally-minded seminary, I like to challenge the notion that IRD is anti-evangelistic. IRD is not preaching (1-way communication to change someone’s mind) or apologetics (2-way communication to change someone’s mind).  IRD focuses on understanding, but I point out that, much in line with Dale Carnegie, one does not influence another person by trying to win arguments. Mutual understanding builds trust, and opens the door for more effective sharing of one’s own beliefs.

Part of that class was to have my students practice Inter-religious Dialogue. They were to have two good conversations with individuals of another faith.

Most did okay enough. There were some issues:

  • Some really did not talk to those of another faith, but of a different Christian denomination. Why? In some cases, they may have been shy about making a conversation with someone from a different faith. For others, I don’t know. This is a Baptist seminary, and there is a temptation (a very unhealthy temptation in my view) to identify people from other denominations as people of other faiths.
  • Some did a conversation more like a quiz. “Can you answer me these following questions about your beliefs?” and “Okay… thanks for your time. Good day.” That is not the worst thing. Evangelicals sometimes almost revel in their ignorance of other faiths… so I can’t really complain that they took time to listen. But perhaps they could have done more to build relationships.
  • A few quickly fell back into argument— trying to ask clever questions, or make poignant statements that would leave the other at a loss and realize that their faith is invalid. That rarely works. But I know that argument is commonly taught as if it is a great method of sharing one’s faith. Just this morning, I saw a tweet from a Christian author that said something like. “Evangelism today is spelled A-P-O-L-O-G-E-T-I-C-S.” Personally, in a post-modern society, most real (inter-religious or inter-faith, rather than inter-denominational) evangelism should be spelled D-I-A-L-O-G-U-E. But I know that the desire to be clever and “score points” can be strong… and there are valid roles for apologetics.

One student in particular really got my point. When I first started teaching the class, he seemed rather skeptical thinking that I am disrespecting Evangelism. This is not surprising since Dialogue as promoted by John Hick, Raimon Pannikkar, and others on the Relativistic side of the spectrum of Dialogue thought certainly did not support proselytization… and often found it to be anathema, or at least inconsistent with dialogue.

But over time, my student came around to the idea that there may be benefit in using dialogue to reach some people.

He presented a case where it was very helpful. He was having a conversation with a person from another of the Great World Religions. That person was quite cautious and suspicious of my student. My student was very non-combative– he did not preach, he did not argue. They talked about life and faith. Over three or four meetings, they were able to get to the point where they could talk about issues of faith and faith allegiance in a mutually safe environment. The other person decided to become a follower of Christ. My student is now mentoring that person… but is for now cautious in integrating that person into a church. (Sadly, there are far too many horror stories of well-meaning Christians who destroy young Christians from other religious backgrounds because they don’t know how to respond well.)

So does that mean that Dialogue can work in Evangelism. Absolutely Yes. Is it the only thing that works? No, but for a person from a radically different faith background, canned presentations, clever arguments, and polemics are likely to create a hostile response, not the desired response.

My student was thankful for the class because it helped him respond in a way that the other person was prepared to respond well to… rather than react against.

I find it amusing sometimes, and sometimes disappointing, when I teach a class and my students do almost the exact opposite of what I recommend. It is their right, and I don’t really trust professors who feel that their students must mimic their own views and behaviors. Still, one hopes that the students at least struggle with what they learned from the course trying to figure out what to value and practice, and what to set aside….

… And then sometimes they just get it.

 

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Condemnation and the Gospel

Today there is a bit of a theological revolution going on as many Evangelicals are questioning the ECT (eternal conscious torment) view of hell, in favor of an annhilationist view, or purgative view, or some other form. To me, it seems odd how dogmatic people are on something that is, frankly, not clearly answered in Scripture.

Often, when something is not clearly

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For fun I decided to show an Islamic “Bridge Illustration” rather than the Christian One.

answered in Scripture, I believe there is a reason. Perhaps we are becoming fascinated with a topic that we are not supposed to be fascinated by. Maybe we are not supposed to be fascinated with Hell. Maybe we are to know it is where we don’t want to be, and then seek somewhere else.

 

Of course, the temptation for some is there… with Jonathan Edwards and other well-known “hellfire preachers” of the 19th century following the pattern of morality plays of the Middle ages, giving graphic imagery to some dark imagination. In this they are following Dante, except lacking the political and social satire. The great industrialist Andrew Carnegie decided he was an atheist after hearing a very graphic impassioned sermon on a hyper-Calvinistic God who arbitrarily sends many dead infants to suffer eternal torment in Hell. (It does make one wonder what the purpose of sharing such a controversial doctrine to a congregation would be.)

The fascination with Hell, historically, can rival present fascination with focusing on End-time events. This is despite the dearth of specific details, as well as statements inthe Bible that clearly point us towards focusing on living faithfully now rather than seeking to work out the timing.

Today, fascination for Hell has generally subsided except in cartoons.  Some of the lack of fascination is due to disbelief. But even where there is a belief in Hell, global culture tends to move mysteries into abstractions, so belief often is more of a simple adherence to a doctrinal statement.

An exception to this downplaying of hell is in many of the the Evangelism methods out there. Many incorporate strong imagery of hell, while some even seem to seek to “scare the ‘hell’ out of you.”  “Hell is Real” on youtube, some versions of the Bridge Illustration, and others often put a very strong emphasis on Hell. Walking around Baguio City here a few years back, I found a gospel tract lying on the ground called “The Burning Hell.” It had a picture of faces in agony surrounded by fire, with a strong message of condemnation, with a related message of hope at the end.

Now I believe in teaching the whole counsel of God. And I certainly believe that salvation is not just a “save to” process, but a “save from” process. Still, it did get me thinking about actual presentations of the Gospel in the New Testament. In most of them, it seems to me that there was a much greater focus on being “saved to” something than “saved from.” That is not always the case, but it does make me wonder about the focus of some presentations.

  • John 3:1-20. This message to Nicodemus emphasizes the necessity to be “born from above.” The focus is on how God grants eternal life to those who believe on the Son of God. Hell is not mentioned, except perhaps implied in that there is a choice to be born from above or not. Later in the passage it is clear that an alternative to such salvation is to have his (or her) evil deeds exposed, be condemned, and then perish. The message overall, focuses on the positive aspect of responding to the Gospel, with the results of refusing given in only vague terms. (Of course, Nicodemus was a Jewish scholar, so giving details may not have been necessary.)
  • John 4:1-26.  Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman. In this passage there is no real clear condemnation listed, although it is arguably implied.  Since the Messiah saves and grants eternal life, there is presumably an alternative. There is no condemnation of the Samaritan woman, and only the slightest condemnation of the Samaritan people. Jesus says that the Samaritans worship what they do not know, and apparently worship where they should not worship, but in the future, such boundaries will disappear. The message here is almost completely positive.
  • Acts 2.  Peter’s message to the people at Pentecost is spoken of in almost all positive terms as well. The dangers of rejection of Christ are only hinted at. The central message is here,  Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”  And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!” -Acts 2:38-40.  There are negative repercussions hinted at, but overall, the message is on the blessings of responding to Christ.
  • Acts 8.  Philip’s messages to the Samaritans and to the Ethiopian are very limited. The first is described as the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” The other was described as the “good news of Jesus Christ.” The only condemnation mentioned was for Simon the Magician… who was actually described as an immature believer, not an unbeliever.
  • Acts 10.  Peter’s message to Cornelius. This message is also almost totally positive. The only condemnation listed is implied in the statement regarding Jesus… “He is the One appointed by God to be the Judge of the living and the dead.
  • Acts 14.  Paul and Barnabas in Lystra.  “Men! Why are you doing these things? We are men also, with the same nature as you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in themIn past generations He allowed all the nations to go their own way,” -Acts 14:15-16.  The curious thing here is that Paul really underwhelms in terms of condemnation. In fact, he suggests that God has overlooked their rebellious behavior, rather than condemned it… at least for now.
  • Acts 17.  Paul in Athens provides an interesting attempt to contextualize the Gospel. He does, actually, note condemnaton:  “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent,  because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed.  -Acts 17:30-31.  The strange thing here is that although God is definitely judging, the passage also notes God overlooking past sinfulness, because of their ignorance, muting to some extent the condemnation.

You can look up other presentations yourself. What to make of this? Do we remove all references to Hell? Perhaps not. What about judgment of condmenation? No. In fact, most of these presentations at least imply judgment.

However, Hell does not appear to be central to most presentations of the Good News in the Bible. The Good News is more a message of hope than condemnation. Does that mean that we put the gospel into a form that is all sugary and pleasant? Not necessarily, but presentations that focus on condemnation don’t appear to be any more Biblical than those that ignore judgment.

Top Posts on Evangelism

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I am far from an expert on Evangelism, but I have gained some perspectives of it as it is commonly practiced over time. Here are some of the Top Posts on this topic.

Critique of Evangelism (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).  These three posts summarize many of my views regarding Evangelism as it is commonly practiced. The posts were done back in 2010, so my views have evolved somewhat over time, but I think my critique is still generally sound.

Multi-Dimensional Evangelism.  Looks at 0-dimension (Simple Conversion), 1-dimension (Engel Scale), 2-dimension (Gray Scale), and 3-dimension (“Evangelism Cube”) regarding evangelism.

Evangelism 315.  A modified version of evangelism (more like permission-based) inspired by I Peter 3:15.

Salvation versus Conversion: Missiological Implications.  Perhaps a bit controversial, at least in its vocabulary. I suggest that Salvation (the process of God’s transformational work in the life of a person being conformed to Christ) should be valued more than Conversion (the one time salvific event of adoption into the family of God).

Evangelism Thoughts: “Savior Salvation” and “Fallen from Grace.”  More questions than answers. Brings up some questions regarding Lordship Salvation, Savior Salvation, and issues of Grace.  Definitely more questions than answers.

High Context Evangelism.  Short post noting the importance of contextualization of the message of the gospel.

New Evangelism.  A long quote from Alan Walker’s “A New Evangelism” with my own commentary. Some of it points to the fact that people’s attitude about death affects their resonance to salvation presentations. The question is, “Do many presentations ‘scratch where it does not itch’?”

The “Toolbox” and “Big Hammer” Theory.  Suggestions for a broader base of understanding and skills for Evangelists to be able to effectively reach a broader number of people. This is contrast to the one-size-fits-all idea for evangelism.

 

Argument and Ego Response

I find this an interesting phenomenon. Maybe you will as well. I am teaching a course in Inter-religious Dialogue. The first third of the course is on some principles of IRD, while the second deals with the beliefs of some major word religions.

We had covered Rabbinical Judaism already54169d1c6e7a2ce8d29a09433db6a687 and were now in Islam. One of my students is much more of an expert in Islamic beliefs than I am since he was raised in a culture where these beliefs were really deeply ingrained in the educational system. I was happy to let him teach parts of this section. So he gets up and says that he will teach Islamic beliefs from an insider perspective. As he started to teach, it was interesting that some of the other students begin to challenge him in some of the points and bringing up counter-arguments. I found that interesting because:

  • The student who was teaching Islamic beliefs is not a member of that faith, and yet the very fact that he was teaching it from an insider perspective appeared to make some of the fellow students uncomfortable.
  • One of the principles I drilled into my students is that one should try to “walk in the shoes” of those of another belief system. That is, listen respectfully and try to understand their faith from their position. After all, beliefs (no matter how crazy they may sound from an etic position) make a lot of sense from an insider (emic) position. I recall reading an Islamic tract that was trying to convince Christians that they should become Muslims. It became pretty obvious that they did not understand Christian theology. The writers were writing from a specifically Islamic perspective to people they were not even trying to understand.
  • I have equally pointed out the general futility to argument in changing people’s minds. Generally, argument leads to backfire where the beliefs of the two parties tend to diverge rather than converge via argument.

So when the students were bumping up against other belief perspectives and standards of authority, they became defensive and started drifting into argument mode. Even though the person “on the other side” was also a Christian, the circumstances triggered the response.

I am sure that some in the class would look at the situation differently. They might say that the arguing was a fun or even humorous response. However, that response, whatever the cause, still tended to sabotage the learning experience because it involved a rejection of trying to understand things from the non-Christian perspective. They were listening to respond rather than to understand.

When I brought this up, the class adjusted. But I don’t think this response is unique. Much of my class went to the local mosque for Friday noon prayers, and also did a tour of the school at the mosque where they teach Arabic and the Tawhid. While there, one of the Islamic students tried to strike up a theological argument. One of my students did respond well. He said, “That’s really not why we are here today. We are here to learn, not to argue.”

Our religious beliefs are not only what we believe, they also become part of our values and self-understanding, so the very existence of people who don’t value those beliefs, and even have counter-beliefs, tend to trigger a reaction.

It is curious that many people think that arguing over faith is a good method to convince others to change to their own beliefs. This is simply not true. Most people respond to warm words and actions rather than cold logic.

The trigger for argument in many cases is not a desire to evangelize, but ego response.

 

A Language of Foolishness

I have been reading a couple of books on Pastoral Theology. One is a classic:  “The Minister as a Diagnostician” by Paul Pruyser. The other is “The Word of God and Pastoral Care” by Howard Stone. Both of these books note a problem with chaplains and other ministers.  The problem is the rejection of theological language in ministry in favor of the language of psychology (or sociology or social work).

There can be a number of reasons for this. First, some of the language of theology is academic and little adapted to practical ministry. Second, the language of the social sciences are often more precise and agreed upon (at least at a specific point of time).

But another thing is that sometimes ministers are rather apologetic about their tradition. In chaplaincy work, one has to minister to people that do not necessarily respect or understand one’s tradition and language. As such, it is tempting to incorporate the language of the social sciences on the presumption that it will be more accepted by those they minister to. Additionally, some chaplains become embarrassed by the sloppy thinking and language of popularized (TV) Christianity. They don’t wish to be identified with such forms of Christianity. (I can understand that concern.)

Unfortunately, much is lost. The language of Christian theology is better for existential questions, meaning, and ethics than the social sciences. Additionally, religious faith and spirituality are of great importance for countless millions of people.

This is not just a problem in chaplaincy but in missions as well. We want to contextualize our faith… interpreting it in a way that is understandable and appreciated by those who are not Christians. The challenge is finding the balance.

At one end, one can use language and concepts that make no sense to the hearer. It may be clear to Christians… but not very effective in bringing truth to others.

At the other end, one can lose the language and Christian concepts in the quest of being relevant in the context.  Again, not very effective.

Clearly, the goal is between the two extremes, finding relevance in context while holding to the truth in the message.

Losing one’s heritage is not the solution to contextualize to another heritage. There needs to be a tension between these extremes.

I have been there. I was at a Christmas gathering with a diverse number of people. Some were Christian of one variety or another, some nominal and some not. Some were generally secular. A couple were Muslim. I struggled in finding a comfortable language for expressing a religious Christmas message in that diversity. Using language that makes no sense to the hearers is useless. But using vague inclusive language essentially doesn’t say anything either.

I am reminded of the words of St. Paul,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God   –I Corinthians 1:18

One must ultimately embrace a certain language of foolishness– a willingness to sounding foolish… while not embracing such a label as a badge of honor.

I am still struggling with this.