Are There Concerns With Linking the Sinner’s Prayer with Salvation?

Today, I was in a Bible Study. It was an evangelistic bible study. It was rather interesting. For one thing, the facilitator used Ecclesiastes. He focused on our need for purpose in life— about what truly gives life meaning. That was, I believe a far superior strategy to, for example, the ones that try to scare the person into a guided response.

After the presentation, the facilitator led those who wished to join in saying what has been called “The Sinner’s Prayer.” After the prayer, the facilitator said something to the effect that, “If you have said this prayer with me, I believe that God working in your life to draw you closer to Him.” I like that statement. I fully agree with that statement. Sadly, however, the Sinner’s Prayer often has a pretty sketchy theology supporting it. However, I fully support the way the facilitator used it.

Far too many use the Sinner’s Prayer in ways that I consider problematic. Here are a few of my concerns:

#1. It is often used to define who ARE NOT saved. If a person is deeply committed to God, and faith in Jesus Christ, but comes from a denomination or church that does not use the Sinner’s Prayer, the presumption is that certainly this person is not saved. I have seen statistics that between 5 and 10 of Filipinos are Christian. Of course, over 90% of Filipinos describe themselves as Christians. Why the discrepancy? The 5-10% essentially describes the percentage of Filipinos who are associated with Evangelical churches… or churches that embrace Historical Christianity and the use of the Sinner’s Prayer. Apparently 100% of those involved with Evangelical churches are Christian and 0% of those involved with other churches are Christian. I doubt this is a good assumption. I believe eternity will have a lot more, and a lot less, people than we are tempted to assume.

#2. It is often used to define who ARE saved. There is a tendency to declare that when people say, pray, or think the Sinner’s Prayer, they are now saved. Sometimes I wonder if Christians find the simplicity of the Shahada as appealing. In Islam, if some confesses the Shahada, the core statement of faith of Islam, AND MEANS IT, that person is now recognized as a Muslim. Christianity is more muddy. We are supposed to believe certain things certainly, but salvation is firmly linked to following Jesus, and yet grounded in grace rather than works. That muddiness makes it difficult to determine who really is a “Real Christian.” The book of I John addresses this very issue, but the focus is on how a person can self-examine to determine if he or she is a child of God, but it does not give firm guidance for others. The end of the matter is that God judges the heart and we do not. And that would be great except for two things. First, we want to have good statistics. Doing evangelistic medical missions, we wanted to have good numbers to share with others to show how successful we are. Murkiness is not as inspirational as clear numbers. The same goes for revivals. We want numbers that seem unambiguous. Measuring how many people walked forward at an altar call is easy to measure compared to how many are being molded in to the image of Christ over a period of time. Second, we want to treat Real Christians very different from those who are not-so-Real. More on that later.

#3. It lessens the Christian faith. Christians are no longer those who are following Christ, living according to the Great Commandment, and led by God’s Spirit to live holy lives, and bless those around them. Instead, it is people who can recite an event where they said something at some point in time. Those who are followers of Christ and walking in the Spirit demonstrate this in exhibiting the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, gentleness, goodness…. ). That should be a pretty good (but not absolute) test… but with so many Christians not demonstrating this, Christianity can slip into what the revivalists (originally) wanted to stop. The revivalists saw lukewarmness in the church and in so-called Christian communities, and so wanted to get people fired up for God. The altar call was a way to quantify it. But in placing so much emphasis on the altar call and saying the Sinner’s Prayer, people could fall back to lukewarmness and carnality with the comforting assurance that they are Real Christians.

#4. We want to treat Real Christians different from not-so-Real. In evangelical circles we like to clearly separate between evangelism (leading people to Christ) and discipleship (guiding those already saved to grow in their faith). However, this division breaks down if we don’t really know who is saved and who is not. Paul Hiebert addressed this issue by suggesting that we should look at Christianity in terms of a centered set with an uncertain boundary. We don’t necessarily know who is redeemed by God, but we know that our task is to guide people closer to Christ. Therefore, evangelism should not really be seen as a separate activity. We disciple all bringing them closer to Christ without knowing exactly where they are in this process. I recall being hired by Founder’s Inn, a resort that was owned by Pat Robertson and CBN. As a secular business they were not supposed to ask about our faith, but they did anyway. However, they did not ask about how I sought to live out a holy life, obeying the Great Commandment, expressing love to all people, and encouraging fellow Christians to great Christlikeness. They asked me to describe my “conversion experience”— that is, when I said the Sinner’s Prayer. Not a very useful question for a job interview.

#5. The focus on the Sinner’s Prayer sometimes leads to even more shortcuts. Some try to scare people to follow Jesus. I never saw much value in that one… but it was the method we used in doing medical missions. I have used it before. One method I was taught, the Dunamis Method, seems to be nothing more than guilt-tripping Christians (who already believe in Jesus, the Trinity, salvation through faith, and the grace of God) to say the Sinner’s Prayer. Since the method does nothing to change people’s minds or hearts, I see it as nothing more than a trick to get Christians to be identified as Christian by Evangelicals.

There are other issues. That being said, I am not anti-Evangelical. In fact, doctrinely, I fit pretty comfortably in the Evangelical camp (despite the growing toxic culture forming in much of American Evangelicalism). I think there is need for slight adjustments.

One can still be convinced that God at some point in time, transitions a person’s status to that of being adopted into the family of God. One can firmly believe this without necessarily knowing at what exact point in time that occurs. In other words, embrace Paul Hiebert’s set theory of centered set Christianity with uncertain boundaries.

If we can embrace the call to follow Christ faithfully and encourage every Christian to be a blessing to all people in message and in action, discipling all who seek it, I believe the Sinner’s Prayer has a role in identifying through confession the intentions of a person… and recognition that God is indeed doing a work in his or her life.

However, for what it’s worth, I think I would rather see a new believer recite the Lord’s (or Disciple’s) Prayer rather than the Sinner’s Prayer. It expresses faith better than the Sinner’s Prayer, and is typically tied to community— an act of the church with the individual, rather than simply the act of the individual alone. But that is just my opinion. That view may change over time.

Why I Don’t “Do” Evangelistic Events Anymore

The title says it. I don’t involve myself in evangelistic events anymore. Years ago I did… and I will go into that. I have a number of reasons to, perhaps not oppose them but, choose not to support them. I will give two.

#1. Historical. I come from Western New York. This area had the term “Burned Out District” associated with it. This term was inspired by a quote from the 19th century revivalist, Charles Finney.

“I found that region of country what, in the western phrase, would be called, a ‘burnt district.’ There had been, a few years previously, a wild excitement passing through that region, which they called a revival of religion, but which turned out to be spurious.” … “It was reported as having been a very extravagant excitement; and resulted in a reaction so extensive and profound, as to leave the impression on many minds that religion was a mere delusion. A great many men seemed to be settled in that conviction. Taking what they had seen as a specimen of a revival of religion, they felt justified in opposing anything looking toward the promoting of a revival.”

I am quoting from the Wikipedia article “Burned Out District” that quotes “The Autobiography of Charles G. Finney.”

Western New York transitioned from a place of great Evangelical revival to one of lukewarm faith, and a hotbed of cultic groups. Hardly surprising. When religion is expressed in terms of revivalist fervor… the fervor can eventually die down and people begin to wonder, “Is that all there is?” Because of this, I cringe when a group talks about saturation strategies for evangelism’ or churchplanting. I have grown worried of bigger and bigger evangelistic events. I have known people (including friends) who would attend them over and over to get their spiritual ‘BUZZ.’ Maybe that is okay for some… but I think it may well drive more away than it attracts. I have attended funerals where the preacher turned it into a hard-sell evangelistic message. I feel that the result most commonly was the opposite of what was anticipated.

#2. Personal. For years I was involved in evangelistic events. From 2005 to 2009 I was involved with doing evangelistic medical mission events. These were trips to an area where we would have doctors and nurses provide medical, dental, and surgical care, sometimes other care such as eye glasses, or training seminars, and medicines to the people there. We would also do evangelism as a required part of the care. As an organizer and sponsor of the medical group DPDM for those five years, we treated about 30,000 patients. Additionally, we had around 10,000 people who stated that they prayed to receive Christ during that activity. This sounds pretty awesome. And I don’t really want to denigrate the activity. I like holistic ministries, where one genuinely attempts to integrate care— spiritual care with other types like medical, social, educational, etc. Still I gradually found reasons why I did not want to stay involved in this.

  • The Philippines is a country of Reciprocity. Utang ng Loob (debt of gratitude) is important. This is common, frankly, in much of the world. There is a tendency of many to think that since we are providing free care, their payment back is to go along with the group and respond to the prayer invitation. In fact, the response rate is about 33%. However, if one doesn’t count members of the host church or partnering churches (who already probably have done the Sinner’s Prayer before), children who are too young to respond, and members of minority faiths where responding in prayer to any outside group is anathema, the response percentage is MUCH higher… well over 50%. Sometimes, this activity seems more of an exercise of gratitude than an exercise of evangelism. Gratitude is fine… but perhaps it would be better simply to say, “We are Christians committed to love God and our neighbors, and provide this service free of all charge or obligation.” When there seems to be a payment involved (explicit or implicit) we start to look like Gehazi pulling a gift from Naaman after his healing.
  • Most places we went, changes were not measurable. There were exceptions, however. Over time, we began to learn what churches we could partner with effectively. Some took the partnership seriously, working with those who had come to the medical mission. Most, however, did not. Six months after a medical mission we would often (but not always) call up the host church and ask how things are going. The answer commonly was “Fine.” Then we would ask about any changes after the medical mission (such as growth of church membership, greater involvement in Bible studies, and so forth). Some would be able to describe positive changes. The more common response was something like, “Everything is about the same. When can you come back to do another medical mission?” Generally, those churches that thought that the event would just organically lead to people showing up at their church on Sunday morning would find that nothing changed. (Actually, I know of one exception. We had done a medical mission at a relocation center for those who had been connected with Communist rebels, but had surrendered to the Philippine government. As a show of “gratitude” for their putting down arms, the Philippine government shoved them into a very inadequate living situation. Anyway, we did a medical mission event on Saturday, and on the next day, the church was bursting with people showing up. Of course my suspicion was that their unique response was due to people showing them God’s love and probably not due to the evangelism. They had not been shown much love.) The goals of local churches should be to disciple followers of Christ, and express God’s love to their neighbor. While proclamation of the Gospel is vital in these,doing so should become a substitute for the two goals.
  • Unfortunately, these evangelistic missions can perpetuate the weird theology associated with the Sinner’s Prayer. In the Philippines over 90% consider themselves to be Christian (as in sincere followers of Christ). While there is a high level of nominalism in the Philippines, it is clearly messed up to presume that those who have not prayed the Sinner’s Prayer are not followers of Christ, and that those who have prayed it are. Eventually, as I was keeping track of metrics from the medical mission events. I stopped pretty early describing the number who became saved, and switched it to those who had “prayed to receive Christ.” 10,000 people “prayed to receive Christ,” but we have no idea how many have been saved through our activity. I found that a better metric was to track how many people had said that they were interested in being involved with, or even host, a Bible study.

The following numbers I found to be pretty typical for a medical mission.

Number of total patients: 400

Prayed to receive Christ: 150

Interested in a Bible Study 70

Actually become part of a Bible Study 30 (assuming the church does its job)

If good things happen, it would be out of the 30.

Now, if you read this and you find my reasons unconvincing…. actually that is fine— even Good. I am not trying to talk anyone out of doing evangelistic events. I think they can be good. But I would recommend some reflection and careful planning. A badly planned evangelistic event is not better than not having one. In many cases there are better ideas out there that express God’s love in a way that one’s neighbors can recognize and respond to, and then help them to grow as followers of Christ.

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.