In Pakistan we lived next door to a mosque. The Maolvi (Muslim clergy) and I would occasionally talk and one day I gave him a New Testament to read. The next time we met he informed me that "this is not God’s Word. But it contains God’s Word." Further clarification revealed his view that scripture is only that which God has directly spoken; historical accounts and descriptions are not scripture. Thus the Sermon on the Mount is scripture, while the description of Jesus gathering his disciples around him on the mountain is not. This revealed to me the importance of first understanding the perspective of those I was addressing before seeking to evangelize. Dialogue is an essential prerequisite necessary to ensure accurate communication. The values and concerns of the hearer must be comprehended before we can phrase the gospel using the terminology and categories that resonate with their situation.
Is there a place for Listening?
There is a deep sense of urgency in evangelical missions efforts that the gospel be presented to those who have never heard. This desire is at least partly fueled by the Great Commission in Mt 28, and our determination to live by this command is to be commended and affirmed. At the same time, single minded devotion to a task coupled with a sense of urgency and haste can tempt us to take shortcuts never intended by our Lord, shortcuts detrimental to the kingdom purposes we espouse. One of these shortcuts is to allow the urgency of evangelism to override the value of listening to and appreciating alternate views of life – a shortcut that undermines the very result we desire to see.
In evangelical circles the emphasis is on proclamation and presenting the gospel with the conviction that we have "a message to tell to the nations." This is good and right and I want to affirm that nothing written here is intended to undermine these essential commitments. However, communication is not what is spoken but what is heard. Until the audience is understood, the message cannot be presented in a way that will represent the true gospel that speaks to their spiritual need. With the urgency of a coming flood, the temptation is to throw logs and rocks onto the bank for protection. But the wiser and more permanent solution is to first examine the situation carefully so that the work can be strategic and effective. I would like to argue that interfaith dialogue is not a distraction from missions, but an essential prerequisite to effective cross-cultural evangelistic ministry.
Relativistic compromises among many who advocate interfaith dialogue should not cause us to shy away from such encounters. We have no reason to fear for our faith because the cross of Christ cannot be overthrown and his church will be built. Undoubtedly, we will be shaped and we will be changed through the process, but we will also be equipped to present the gospel effectively and relevantly.
The value of Dialogue
Dialogue is an essential component in our approach to other faiths. Through dialogue areas of agreement and disagreement are clarified and this leads to a changed attitude towards each other. By "witnessing to our deepest convictions whilst listening to those of our neighbors", interreligious dialogue aids in Christian self-criticism as well as critiquing other religions in the light of the gospel (Scherer 1994:183). It represents an honest seeking for truth, a truth that is as yet unknown in our corner (spiritually speaking) of God’s world. It acknowledges that God’s Spirit is at work even before there is opportunity to present the gospel and that all of us are "recipients of the same mercy, sharing in the same mystery" (Bosch 1991:484). This speaks of the mystery of life and spiritual hungers that are common to all. It does not mean, of course, that salvation can be found in any name other than Christ’s (Acts 4:12), but that God has revealed himself to all people in some form or another (Rom 1:18-23). Dialogue can reveal to us the way God is speaking to others (see Jesus’ description of the work of the Spirit in Jn 16:8-11) and thus we are better equipped to know how they can receive the gospel message.
Dialogue Opens Doors
Upon relating the incident of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, a young Sindhi man thoughtfully responded with his own story concerning Mohammad, the prophet of Islam. Mohammad had cause to travel daily from one town to another. During a certain part of his travels an old woman who despised the new teachings of Islam would berate him, curse him and cast dirt at him. One day as he passed by, Mohammad noticed that the woman was missing and so he inquired as to the cause of her absence. Hearing she was sick, he immediately turned aside to visit her and prayed for God to heal her. Moved by such graciousness and concern for her well-being the woman became a follower of Islam.
This dialogue left us both richer. Not only did the young man receive a story of Christ that obviously spoke to him of a spiritual truth, but in response he revealed a value within his own faith that resonates with the realities of the kingdom of God. The story underlined his perception of the meaning of the washing of the disciples’ feet and provided a bridge between the teachings of scripture and what he knows to be true. Such interfaith dialogue opens doors through which the light of Christ may shine.
- (1) Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming Mission. Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll: Orbis.
- (2) Scherer, James A. 1994. Missiology as a discipline and what it includes, in New directions in missions and evangelization 2. Theological foundations, edited by J.A. Scherer & S.B. Bevans, Mayknoll: Orbis, 173-190.