No shame in evangelism as witnessing to Christ

By on December 1, 1999

LAST YEAR’S Lambeth Conference will unfortunately be remembered for its failures.

In an effort to appease militant forms of Islam, particularly in Africa, the bishops abandoned gay and lesbian Christians. We are seeing the effects in Africa today.

It was a modern form of human sacrifice, and Lambeth showed it can still be done in the name of official Christianity.

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Paradoxically, however, the same conference made great strides in inter-faith relations. Recognizing that clashes among the world’s religions are a serious threat to global peace and stability, Lambeth 98 made more progress than any of its predecessors in advancing inter-faith dialogue and calling for new attitudes among Christians toward people of other faiths.

The bishops agreed to “Thirty Theses On Inter-Faith Relations” in a substantial departure from statements by earlier conferences. These clarify several terms frequently misused in current discussions, and make distinctions helpful to our understanding of the relationship between evangelism and dialogue.

Evangelism, for example, was distinguished from conversion. “Christians are not seeking to convert or in the business of conversion in the sense that their sole aim is to make the other person change his or her beliefs” (thesis 26). Lambeth was clear that conversion is God’s business, not the church’s, and implicitly recognized that it happens both away from, and in the direction of, Christianity. It distanced itself from much that is done today in the name of evangelistic outreach.

It also rejected proselytism among (and by) people of other faiths. “Proselytising refers to making converts by methods that are not appropriate, such as bullying, manipulation, use of material resources, targeting specific persons or groups for conversion, misusing power or privilege, or seeking to make Christians who are carbon copies of ourselves” (27). The exploitation of poverty or weakness by Christian (or any other) agencies to “win souls” was declared unacceptable. So was the targeting of Jews, Muslims or any other group.

Instead, we commended attitudes of openness and listening toward other world religions and willingness to work together with them to eradicate evils like poverty, hunger, violence, exploitation, greed, and environmental despoliation. This calls for a shift from a history of hostility to a future of partnership. The now famous axiom of Roman Catholic scholar Hans Kung finds an echo here: no world peace without peace between the world’s religions!

Where then does this leave evangelism? What would it mean in a context of global religious partnership?

Much current writing on evangelism separates into two fundamentally different viewpoints. One ? generally arising from the Western church growth movement ? sees it in terms of turning other believers into Christians and (not incidentally) extending the global power and influence of the church. This view is often accompanied by theologies of Christian exclusivism which hold that only Christians can be saved and that the Kingdom of God will arrive by converting everybody to faith in Jesus.

The other arises from the global inter-faith movement and also ? importantly ? from Christians living as religious minorities in non-Western countries. It sees evangelism primarily as ‘witnessing to Christ’ through diaconal acts of service and mercy toward others, and through joyful unapologetic preaching of Christ but without the hidden agenda of proselytism. Here, tolerance and mutual respect go together with freedom to practise and teach one’s beliefs.

The distinction between evangelism as “conversion” and as “witnessing” is crucial. Lambeth supported the second, and it follows that if we want to do this kind of evangelism ourselves we must allow the same freedom to others.

Religious pluralists argue for a future where believers can witness their faith to each other without needing to become the dominant voice. They believe such a world would be better than this one, and that religious competition is in any case unnecessary because God has made himself known in many ways. In a pluralistic world it makes no more sense to pity other believers because they are not Christians than to pity other Christians because they are not Anglicans.

We should, however, be proud of our distinctiveness. Christian revelation is unique in proclaiming a God who “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death upon a cross” (Phil. 2:8). The centrality of divine humility and suffering in Christian faith shapes our lives in profoundly singular ways, requiring of us sacrificial love, rejection of power politics, commitment to justice, and unconditional acceptance of people God has created, however unlike us they may be.

Forgetfulness of this was, of course, the tragic mistake of Lambeth, which thereby showed that even inter-faith accommodation does not permit us to deny the gospel. Our tradition proclaims a God who announces good news to the poor, lifts up the humble and meek, and puts down the mighty from their thrones. For such a God none of us should be ashamed to evangelize. Michael Ingham is bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster and author of Mansions of the Spirit.

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