Tag Archives: Evangelism

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In our current global milieu, we live in a “world of religions,” and increasingly, Christians are confronted with how to relate to these religions. Ida Glaser approaches these issues with clarity and authenticity in her book The Bible and Other Faiths: Christian Responsibility in a World of Religions. As a Jewish Christian who reaches out to Muslims, Glaser has firsthand experience in how crucial and delicate these matters can be. With an important contribution to Christian theology, Glaser helps Christians distinguish between primary and secondary questions, focusing believers on what we can genuinely know and cannot know from Scripture. In other words, The Bible and Other Faiths is an in-depth look at how the Bible speaks to our own personal interaction with people from other faiths.

In the first chapter, Glaser separates interfaith questions into two categories. On one hand, there are externally-focused questions that focus on judging other people: Are people from other religions saved? Is Jesus the only way to know God? Do other religions consist of any truth? These questions often dominate our religious dialogue, but Glaser argues that these questions may not be the “right questions.” (13) While this is somewhat controversial, especially for conservative Christians, Glaser says that these questions should be secondary to more pressing concerns.

According to Glaser, there is a second set of questions that “focuses on other people’s welfare and our own responsibility,” and it is upon these questions that she primarily focuses. (13) What is God doing among people of other religions? What does God require of us in response? How should we respond to other religions? And how to we apply the great commission and the great commandments to our interfaith context? Certainly these kinds of questions are related to the first kind, but this second set is more “urgent” in the sense that they affect our actual relationships with people.

Developing this further, the author outlines three major approaches to interfaith relations – or more specifically, how Jesus applies to other religions. These can be generally understood as exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. An exclusivist holds the belief that salvation comes through explicit faith in Christ alone; that God only offers special revelation through Israel, Christ and the Bible; and that Christ is Jesus of Nazareth. In light of its exclusive claims, exclusivism strongly emphasizes our personal need to spread the message of Christ. Without this message – and an affirmation of a particular doctrinal truth – a person will necessarily go to Hell.

An inclusivist allows for “anonymous Christians” from other religions because salvation is through Christ, but not necessarily explicitly. It is possible for a spiritual seeker to find Christ, even if they meet him through another religion or know him by another name. Special revelation can be found apart from Christ and Scripture, including the possibility of finding some truth in the sacred texts of other religions. The Christ who saves is visible in the person of Jesus, but is not limited to him. This perspective emphasizes the sovereignty of God and an individual’s response to the Holy Spirit more so than evangelism efforts.

A pluralist believes that salvation is available through all faiths, whether by denying the inconsistency of these religions or by diminishing the significance of such contradictions. Christ is “cosmic” in that He is merely one option among several. All religion, including Christianity, is humankind’s response to the transcendent. There may be mistakes within a particular religious system, but these are to be expected. For a pluralist, what truly matters is not doctrinal correctness, but a genuine response of faith to the transcendent God, whoever that God may be.

While Glaser does not express a particular view, she persuasively illustrates how each camp interprets and omits Bible passages in order to support their respective presuppositions. John 14:6, for example, can be read through the lens of an exclusivist, inclusivist, or a pluralist. An exclusivist would read this verse loudly and emphasize the word “the” in the English translation. An inclusivist would agree that Jesus is the only way, but would recognize the possibility that Jesus could be the only way, the only truth, and the only life in an indirect way. A pluralist, though uncomfortable with such a verse, would point out that this was true at that time and for those people, but does not necessarily apply to all cultures and contexts today.

While this may be troubling for some, Glaser shows the importance of interpreting biblical texts within their literary context. Her approach involves reading John 14:6 in light of John’s prologue in chapter one. As she does so – at least in my reading – she disqualifies the pluralist interpretation, weakens the insistence for an exclusivist interpretation, and validates the possibility of an inclusivist interpretation. Whichever position we may take, we find that this passage does not solve all of the issues that we might have hoped. At the same time, however, by reading a passage within its broader context, we are more likely to see how Scripture was intended to be read. Rather than taking a verse out of context for our religious (and sometimes vicious) purposes, it is essential that we read Scripture with caution and humility.

The book addresses many other important issues, but at its core, focuses on the Bible itself and what it has to say about other religions. Personally, I found this fascinating. If nothing else, The Bible and Other Faiths is worth reading for its helpful summary of Genesis.

Regarding the Old Testament, Glaser discusses the Pentateuch, historical books, wisdom literature, and considers their broader cultural context. While all of this was very intriguing, most significant may be her comments about the Tower of Babel and Abraham. She persuasively argues that Abraham may have originally known Yahweh as “El” from Canaanite religion, and that the Israelites gradually came to the awareness the their God was unlike the other gods that surrounded them. This of course, seems to suggest that people from other religions could gradually come to know God through God’s special intervention.

Concerning the New Testament, Glaser shows that other faiths were frequently present in the Gospels and Acts. The Parable of the Good Samaritan becomes much more poignant when you consider that the Samaritans were idolaters in the eyes of the Jews. Likewise, the fact that Cornelius’ prayers are heard by God should sober us as we consider seekers from other religions. While Glaser recognizes that modern religious systems such as Islam or Hinduism are not specifically addressed, she proves that the New Testament can provide more instruction than we might originally think – not so much in terms of philosophical argument, but in terms of loving others into the Kingdom of God.

In the final chapter, the author returns to her initial proposal that some questions are more important than others. In her view, in which she admits her own uncertainty, we cannot answer all of the questions with absolute certainty. The Bible was not intended to tell us everything that we want to know, but everything that we need to know – or what God wanted to make clear to us. Thus, as surprising as it may be, she does not state whether the Bible is exclusive, inclusive, or pluralist in its claims – for as she says, the Bible was not written with those categories in mind. For many, Glaser’s epistemic humility will be refreshing, while others may become frustrated.

As summarized in the final chapter, one of the main messages of the book is that our responsibility towards other religions is not always clear. However, we should continually search Scripture for guidance. Rather than making blanket statements about religions like Buddhism or Islam, the Bible provides us with insights of how to relate to specific individuals within different traditions. Scripture does not offer a single method, systematic approach to non-Christians, but reorients our own lives, so that we can minister more effectively to the people that we meet amongst the many world religions today. In other words, Scripture is more focused on people than systems.

It is important to recognize our ignorance when it comes to the Bible’s silence, and likewise, we must recognize our own inability to convert others to Christianity. It is better to focus on our own response – what the Bible does talk about – so that we can be faithful to God’s call and eventually lead others to the truth of the gospel. Even though we may not know all of the answers to all of our questions, it is still necessary to reach out to all people in all parts of the world, regardless who or where they may be.

For the most part, I agree with Glaser’s position, and I share many of her concerns. However, I wonder how far we can separate the two kinds of questions that she discusses at the beginning and end of her book. Granting that there is a difference between extrospective and introspective questions, a reader should question how different these questions really are. And since most of the book is founded upon this dichotomy, this is an important issue to raise. Glaser herself admits that the two are “related,” but they may be more related than her book seems to suggest. (13)

My primary concern is that she does not answer a fundamental question that many Christians currently struggle with – namely, is Jesus exclusive or inclusive? To illustrate this point, The Bible and Other Faiths teaches Christians how to interact with other faiths on a daily basis, but what happens when someone from another faith asks us an either-or question? Do we tell that person that we do not know, that Jesus is exclusive, or that Jesus is inclusive? Unfortunately, this book does help in that regard. While it helps us become more charitable, it does not help others by providing them with an objective answer to their most important question.

Even with this omission, however, Glaser offers a considerable amount of wisdom, and many Christians can benefit from reading this book. I found the book encouraging, instructive, and inspiring. Even though not all of my questions were resolved, a book like this that inspires further thought and investigation is definitely worth reading and re-reading. Most importantly, The Bible and Other Faiths focused my eyes on Scripture and challenged me to further search the text. Thanks to this book, I have been motivated to search my own heart and to change the way that I interact with people from other world religions.

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What is evangelism? Is it inviting people to church? Is it sharing the gospel? Is it about helping the suffering?

Christians have used different methods of evangelism. Willow Creek and Saddleback are prime examples of the “come and see” approach, where a large gathering is used to attract people who do not normally attend church. On the other hand, some younger churches are starting to focus on a “go and tell” approach, where evangelism is incarnational and all of life is seen as an opportunity for evangelism.

But I wonder, do we really need to pick between the two? It seems like a debate between two good approaches that are not contradictory to one another. Does an engaging worship service exclude the possibility of missional living? Not at all. In fact, each should motivate the other.

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been examples of non-Christians being amazed of Christian worship. They came, saw, and believed. Back in 988 AD, for example, some converts had testified to the power of experiencing Christian worship. They reported that, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth for on earth, there is no such splendour or such beauty and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” (Moreau 102) What was true a thousand years ago is still true today. Countless people have come to Christ through the “come and see” approach.

At the same time, we fool ourselves if we believe that droves of non-believers will attend Christian events within our church walls. Compared to the growing population, fewer and fewer people are attending church. This is not due to a lack of programming, but a lack of interest in the culture at large. There is a growing animosity towards the church. So our churches must not only welcome seekers, but our churches must become the seekers — going into the world, seeking the lost, and offering hope outside of the church walls.

Rather than dividing sharp lines between us, therefore, we should see the value of both approaches. We should continue to invite non-Christians to experience genuine and true worship; it can forever change their life. But at the same time, we need to seek those who will never step inside of a church; we must reach them where they are at.

Thankfully, God doesn’t limit us to a single approach. With so many creative ways to reach others, we should do everything we can to share Christ’s love with as many people as possible.

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Missional has become a buzzword in Christian circles, but what does it mean? There are many different responses to that, but in my mind, here are a few descriptions of what it means to be missional:

Incarnational:
You display God’s good news in the way you live.

Contextual:
You connect God’s good news with everyday life.

Personal:
You view yourself as a missionary wherever you are.

Communal:
You connect with others in order to spread the good news.

Cultural:
You communicate God’s good news in a relevant way.

Continual:
Your entire life is committed to God’s mission.

Looking at that list, all of us can strive to be more missional. Before we label ourselves as “missional,” we need to be careful to recognize that being missional is more than a label. It is not a simple yes or no. There is always more that we can do.

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For Christians, the “good life” is not something reserved for an exclusive few. It is not hidden, or kept for those who have an ecstatic vision or some kind of secret experience. It is not monopolized by a particular class of people. Christianity is unique in that life is accessible to everyone, regardless of who you are.

In 1 John, we are told that this life was “made manifest.” In other words, God fully disclosed His plan, so that all could see. It was a revelation that could be “heard,” “seen,” and “touched.” It is difficult to imagine what it would have been like to see Jesus, but the mere thought that God was visible is incredible. In terms that humans could understand, God’s love was fully disclosed.

Unfortunately, there are many religions and sects that keep secrets. Because deception needs to be hidden, they need to keep certain aspects of their religion from being known. But shouldn’t it seem suspicious if some things are reserved for a small few?

As a follower of Christ, there is always a deeper life (when a person can know God better), but this is not a hidden experience. Rather, all of the details are visible in Christ. No other revelation is needed. Jesus Christ, who performed miracles and rose from the dead, was seen by hundreds of people — not just one or two. The totality of the gospel is accessible to all.

Interestingly, the realization that “Christianity is public” leads us to evangelism. Because God made His incredible life manifest to all, we should echo that by sharing life with others. As John writes in his first letter, “that which we have seen and heard, we proclaim also to you.” (1:3) If the nature of the message is public, we distort it if we keep it to ourselves. We should be drawn towards fellowship with one another.

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My wife and I are anticipating the birth of our first daughter, EGJ. (Her full name is top secret for now!) Her arrival could be anytime from now until May 11th, and I am thrilled to the point of tears. Our baby is just about to begin her journey, while I am continuing on mine. What a crazy, miraculous world we live in.

Significant events, such as a birth or a death, force us to revisit the topic of life. Most days we slide on by, carrying on our regular activities, but once in a while we have a chance to slow down and ask once again, “What is life really about?” Thankfully, from a Christian perspective, we can narrow it down quite succinctly:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We beg you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)

With only a few words, Paul words summarizes the meaning of the cosmos: (1) God was, and is, reconciling the world to Himself; (2) God does not count our sins against us; (3) and we have been given the message of reconciliation. Everything else should be influenced by those truths.

On a given day, we tend to forget about one or more of those aspects. We forget about God’s global perspective and the breadth of His salvation. We forget about the problem of sin and how God extends His mercy to us. Or we forget to beg others to be reconciled. On some days, maybe we forget all three.

Life is a jumble of activities, but let us never lose sight of what life is about. Whether you are breathing your first breath, driving to work, kissing your spouse, or saying your farewells, it all begins and end with God. The joy of life is that we can all be reconciled.

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Although I haven’t read much of Karl Barth’s writings, thanks to Richard Mouw’s blog, I discovered these deeply penetrating ideas in his Prayer and Preaching.  Among many other pieces of advice, Barth offers the following advice regarding preaching:

Do not indulge in allegory; exercising one’s talents on the Word hinders it from sounding out clearly. One should also beware of intruding one’s own individuality or enlarging on one’s personal experience by using illustrations or parables drawn from events in one’s own life.

Barth’s emphasis on the sufficiency of God’s Word is a refreshing reminder that we are messengers of the Good News, but not the authors.  We must remain true to the text without adding a plethora of our own ideas and life experience.  As I would summarize his ideas, in a sermon, people should hear from God, not an entertaining speaker.

His comments also relate to how we view creativity in the Church.   In the midst of illustrations, videos, dramas, songs, PowerPoints, artwork, and so forth, we should always be cautious of “indulging” in those things.  One sign of this is when we are more excited about the medium than the message.  The two should never be confused.

There is a fine balance.  On one hand, we should use all of our talents to communicate God to others, and this includes our creativity; but on the other, we should be careful to distinguish between God’s Words and our words.  Because God’s Words are immensely more valuable, it should not disappoint us that we are merely messengers.  We do not need to make things “more exciting” with what we add to the message.

There is a lot to think about here.  Obviously, Barth’s ideas can be taken too far, and maybe at times they could seem impractical.  However, I think it’s a fair reminder that everything we do — whether preaching, teaching, creating, or serving — should be subservient to God’s Word.  When it comes to the end of the day, our actions should ultimately point others to God rather than ourselves.