"I have become all things to all people so I could save some of them in any way possible." (1 Co 9:22)
The beginning of missions is "making room" for others as they are; adjusting our program and perspective to match the concerns and priorities of another society. It is opening up our lives to hearing and listening as well as acknowledging the right of people to believe differently. By encouraging an environment in which people can live and celebrate their beliefs without censure, we discover their significant personal and spiritual concerns. These insights both enrich our own faith experience while providing opportunity to initiate the interaction of others with the challenges of the gospel message.
This is not a call to compromise our faith, but the opposite. It is an expression of confidence in the incomparable Christ who is the image of the invisible God. The gospel will shine when we engage in open dialogue with those of other faiths. Rather than condemning or contradicting their beliefs, we earn the right to speak to them of our faith by showing respect for their faith.
My friend Izhar is a follower of Sufism, a mystical movement in Islam. One day he decided to watch a movie and as he was leaving the house he picked up his colored scarf which symbolized his intention to follow the teachings of his master. As he put it on around his neck, he realized that many scenes in the movie would promote values that contradicted his faith. This stopped him and he decided not to attend. When he related this incident to me, I was able to not only confirm those Sufi values and commend him for his faithfulness, but also to remind him of the source of those values in the person of Christ.
This illustrates important missiological principles that are as valid in Canada as in Pakistan. In order to impact people with the gospel (1) we must cease to be strange – that implies changefor us rather than for the other, (2) we must become safe – that means being involved with people in their environment where they are free to be themselves, (3) we must be relational – that requires spending time with people as people, not as projects and (4) we must be intentionally different in life-enhancing, attractive ways that speak of Christ, not in censorious, life-limiting ways.
In Pakistan if a person is eating a meal and an acquaintance walks by, they will invite the friend to come and eat. Often the person will take a token bite in order to enter into the meal. This needs to be our attitude with other religions: not remaining isolated or hostile to another’s belief but communicating a welcoming interest so people can feel safe to express their faith. People must first belong, before they will speak of their true concerns. Their true concerns will only arise within a safe context. A safe context will only occur when we take that step of vulnerability and make room for others.
Missions: Battle or Pleasure?
War images are often used to describe missions. This had a detrimental effect on my thinking for long period of time, especially hymns like "Onward Christian Soldiers" which, in a Muslim context, bring up violent images of the Crusades. I used to view evangelism as a battle, a contest. I felt I was called upon to defend the faith by giving the right answer to difficult questions and pointing out inconsistencies in other belief systems. I thought that evangelism was apologetics and the goal was to win an argument.
In many Muslim countries some missionaries will set up a Christian book table in the bazaar and talk to those who come along. Such an approach is often less than effective by attracting those who love to argue religion. However, evangelism is actually a lot more fun when it is not a contest. It is enlightening to focus on discovering other people’s values and beliefs rather than searching for ways to correct them. It is less stressful not to challenge their faith, but to explore with them the meaning of life.
The Pharisees often tried to trap Jesus in argument (the taxes question – Mt 22:15-22, and the woman caught in adultery – Jn 8:1-11). However Jesus always redirected people’s attention from issues of who is correct (contest) and rights (law) to issues of relationship and love. To develop relationships with people of other religions, we must make room for them as they are. To impact them with the gospel, we must show them the way of Christ: love as self-sacrifice. Living in a pluralistic society is not a cause for fear or regret, but a cause for joy and excitement – we now have opportunity to fulfill our purpose as people who show the love of Christ through our relationships with others.
- (1)A pluralist society is one consisting of a variety of societal subgroupings, each with a distinct sub-culture and belief system. A pluralistic society is a society that is intolerant of any one belief system having priority over the others.
- (2) This tongue in cheek example is intended to illustrate way we need to be involved with other religions: the essential McDonald trademark remains while the food is culturally specific and far different from the original menu selections. In the same way we are called to remain faithful to the essential gospel, while expressing that transforming reality through the context of another’s culture and worldview.