Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Fifth rule for dialogue: Courtesy

Before I continue, I just want to apologise that I have been so quiet for a few days. My 84 year old mother-in-law became very weak towards the end of last week and last night (Sunday) she died. She was a remarkable person and had an unshakable faith in the Lord right up to the end. My eldest son also has a blog and he put his own feelings about her life in his latest post. This touched me deeply when I read it. You can read it here.
Back to today’s topic. Max Warren said that nothing prevents dialogue from taking place more than an attitude of arrogance. Christ was willing to sacrifice his own honour and glory for our behalf. Nothing less is expected of us. He writes: “The cross was not a symbol of imperial domination, but of the imperium of sacrifice. The Christian faith has nothing to lose by suffering. In and through suffering it can perhaps speak home to the hearts and minds of suffering mankind better than in any other way”
Another theologian with the name of Margull said that the Christian church will have to make itself vulnerable when meeting other religions. David Bosch wrote that the apostles believed because of the marks of the nails in the hands of Jesus. The world will believe because of the cross.
A friend of mine sent me a note today. It’s not personal, therefore I believe that I can share something from this letter. She works for a mission organisation and amongst other things she also coaches a basketball team at an all-girls school in South Africa. The team consists of people from a variety of cultures. They recently travelled together by train to take part in a tournament and that evening she felt that the Lord wanted her to speak to these girls. She started by asking some tough questions. I quote from her letter:
“They shared with me that about 85% of the girls who attend their school are lesbians or bisexuals as well as many of the staff. They talked about the lack of role models and adults in the lives of the girls and how boredom and loneliness in the boarding houses leads to experimenting with other girls. One girl shared about her experiences (past and present) with other females. As they spoke, they watched me intently to see my reaction. We didn’t touch on Jesus or God or church, etc. The night was purely the reality of their lives and in reality Jesus has no part in their lives right now.
I believe that Jesus wants to be in their lives and he has put me in this position for a purpose that is bigger than what I can see. Honestly, I am scared. It is an uncomfortable situation and it is dark. This weekend was a time where God began to dig up roots and I really want to be able to join him in the dig, but I don’t know how…”

How do you go into dialogue with people like this, for whom faith in Jesus Christ means zero, knowing that this is the only way in which they will ever experience real peace and freedom?

Monday, May 21, 2007 Posted by | Dialogue, Theology | 1 Comment

Fourth rule for dialogue: Identification

My friend, Piet Meiring, who wrote the original article which I am using as basis for what I am writing here, is of the opinion that this may indeed be the most difficult thing to do should you wish to go into dialogue with someone of another religion. With “identification” Max Warren means that you should put yourself into the person’s shoes that you are speaking with so that you can really understand how such a person thinks. Max Warren refers to the prophet Ezekiel who was sent to his own people, yet we read in Ezekiel 3:15: “I came to the exiles who lived at Tel Abib near the Kebar River. And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days – overwhelmed.” First of all Ezekiel entered into the presence of the exiles and then he became overwhelmed by what he saw there – he started feeling what they were feeling.
Max Warren puts it in these words: “You and I cannot bring men to Christ by whistling to them at a distance. We have to go and meet them, as God does, and psychologically speaking this means coming to them imaginatively where they imagine themselves to be.” Or in the words of the apostle Paul we have to become a Jew for the Jews if we want to win them for Christ.
Obviously I often wonder how my friend in Russia is doing. I haven’t heard from him for some time, but then I know that he is extremely busy (he is an engineer) and very often not able to reply to email. His circumstances is that he grew up in communist times in Russia. His mother is a “believer” and he considers his father also to have been a believer. His father was an officer in the Soviet army. One evening my friend entered a room in their apartment in which his mother had placed an “icon” in front of which she prayed. That evening he found his father kneeling in front of this icon and his father was also praying. He got a great fright when he saw this, because he realised that, if his father was seen doing this, he would probably be captured and sentenced as army officers were not allowed to be “believers” – they were supposed to be atheist. After he finished school, his mother advised him to forget about religious issues. “Believers” were not allowed to go to university and she wanted him to get a good education – which he did.
After listening to this story I realised that a great miracle would have to take place in his life if he should come to faith in Christ. Of course, faith is always a miracle, but when listening to him I realised that I have no right to condemn him for not believing yet. Hopefully my attitude would one day be remembered by him, should he ever come to the point of accepting Christ as Saviour.

Thursday, May 17, 2007 Posted by | Dialogue, Theology | 1 Comment

Third rule for dialogue: Accepting the best in other religions

I must admit that this “rule” is a bit more difficult (at least for myself). We tend to focus on the negative side of other religions, mostly because we try and win an argument when we speak to people believing differently than us. And then obviously we try and focus on the positive side of Christianity.

The question which immediately arises is whether we are true to Christ if we find anything positive in another religion. Max Warren writes: “We may be sure that He (God) will not contradict himself. We may be sure that nothing that we may discover will put a veil of covering over the face of Jesus so that the glory of God there revealed will be obscured.”
Obviously there is a lot of positive things to find in many religions. Absolute devotion immediately comes to mind when thinking of religions such as Islam and Buddhism. To deny these positive aspects will in no way advance the dialogue process.
But Warren does not stop at this point. By admitting and discussing the positive aspects of other religions, we are enabled to honestly put the differences on the table. He writes: “… the new and, I believe, the truer method of encounter … will not whittle away real differences and produce some agreed confession of Faith based on the lowest common multiple. Far from that, this approach … is calculated to show what are the genuine differences and just how important the may be”
The purpose of dialogue is therefore not to form some kind of syncretism. However, listening to the other person earns us the right to also explain what we believe about Jesus Christ as Saviour. And with time, we may also be able to expose the untruths this person believes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007 Posted by | Dialogue, Theology | 1 Comment

Second rule for dialogue: Divine omnipresence

What Max Warren wants to say through this second principle is that, wherever we go, God is already present. This means that, should I go into dialogue with someone from another (or no) religion, then I will find that God, through the Holy Spirit is already working within this situation. Warren writes: “As God has moved first in regard to the evangelist so it will be assured that God moved first with regard to those to whom the evangelist goes. That assumption carries with it the certainty that in any situation and in any company in which the evangelist finds himself God will have got there first. God is always the first pioneer”
This is exactly what Paul found when he arrived in Athens (Acts 17). God was already present! All that Paul could do was to introduce the omnipresent God to the people living there. This is a great comfort. Whenever I am involved in evangelism, I can be assured that I am not walking into a situation where God is absent and where I have to force the door open so that God can enter.
I experienced this in a very real way in Russia. When I went to visit my atheist friend, (you can read the story here), I found that he is regularly reading a Bible. At this stage it is nothing more to him than a collection of “short stories” as he calls it. Obviously I would have liked it if I could have explained to him the meaning of these “short stories.” But the time was not right for this. And therefore I could leave him, knowing that God is already busy in his life and praying that, at some point, he will come to a better understanding of God and that he will at that time be able to move from atheism to faith.

Monday, May 14, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

First rule for dialogue: Acceptance of our common humanity

Max Warren’s first rule for true dialogue between Christians and people of other faiths, is the acceptance of our common humanity. What he means is that two religions are not in dialogue with each other, but two people. I found the following quote interesting: “Christianity cannot have any relationship with other religions. No more can Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam. To think that they can have such a relationship is a purely academic exercise which very soon leads to that preposterous parody of real life – the study of comparative religion … What you can get is men of religion meeting one another and seeking to discover what it is that their respective religions mean to them” According to Acts 17:26-28 we all originate from the same source, whoever we are. All of us have sinned and all of us are in need of salvation.
In all my years of theological study, I don’t think anything made a bigger impression upon myself than a single sentence I read in one of my text books. D T Niles was quoted: “A Christian witness is not like a rich man who has a lot of bread which he hands out to the poor beggars who have nothing. He is rather like one beggar who tells another beggar where he has found bread.”
Could such an attitude become a better foundation for true dialogue?

Friday, May 11, 2007 Posted by | Dialogue, Theology | 2 Comments

Mission as dialogue

I recently read an article written by a friend, Piet Meiring. For all the non-Afrikaans readers of the blog, the sad news is that the article was written in Afrikaans. It concerns the issue of mission and dialogue but was actually written to discuss Max Warren’s “Seven Rules for Dialogue Between Christians and non-Christians.” The word “dialogue” has been a type of catch-word in the theology of missions for some years. I remember, when I attended the assembly of the Reformed Ecumenical Council in Indonesia in 2000, that the word was used often to indicate how Christians should relate to people of other religions. Now, it may be that I mis-understand many of those who speak about “dialoguing” with people of other religions, but the impression I often get is that one has to go into such a dialogue, totally open-minded and totally without any personal conviction. Believing that Jesus Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” and that no-one comes to the Father except through Him, this type of dialogue is, for me, very difficult.
I was pleasantly surprised when reading this article in the September/December issue of the “Nederduitse Gereformeerde Teologiese Tydskrif” (Dutch Reformed Theological Journal) to see that the author says that true dialogue and true understanding can only take place if you are fully aware of your own convictions. In other words, the way that Warren described dialogue, in no way puts a Christian’s personal faith in Jesus Christ on the line. This, for me, gives a new face to the meaning of dialogue with other religions.
Those of you who read my blog on From atheism to faith may realise that in a certain sense this is what I was attempting to do when I started discussing religion with a Russian atheist. I could have opted to proclaim the message of salvation to him “in season and out of season” and if he rejected the message, I could say that he had heard and had made the decision to reject it. I opted for the other alternative: to leave the door open for further discussion with him – which is probably what meaningful dialogue is all about.
In the next few days I will try and discuss shortly each of these seven rules for dialogue. You are of course welcome to “dialogue” with me or other readers of this blog about this issue.

Thursday, May 10, 2007 Posted by | Theology | 3 Comments