Here’s something I don’t understand. Why do so many people in the church who teach evangelism despise non-Christians? No, really. It would seem to me that as Christians we would absolutely LOVE everyone who isn’t a Christian, but this isn’t the case. Over and over I meet United Methodist evangelists who are harsh and divisive when it comes to engaging with non-Christians. I tell a story about a mission project that my UM church did with a group of Hindus and a Harley-Davidson biker club. I use the story as an illustration of true unity and harmony, interfaith collaboration, and building bridges with those outside the faith. A few years ago, a prominent pastor in our denomination stormed up to me after I told the story shaking with rage. “What kind of Christian are you?” he began. “Telling people they should reach out to heretics and thugs. Your job is to convert such people, not buy into their lies You should have nothing to do with such people, and you shouldn’t encourage others to work with them either!” I was so taken aback at the time, I didn’t know how to reply. But whenever I think about this experience I confront a fundamental illogic. If we want to “convert” others, how is avoiding them a good strategy? If evangelism is not only our words, but our actions as well, how do we witness to our faith in the vacuum of staying only with our own kind? How does someone else’s lack of faith or belief in another faith mitigate my responsibility to witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ? How with others know my faith if I refuse to engage with them in a meaningful way?
I used to run into this in prison ministry. I spoke at a Congress on Evangelism about the importance of prison ministry and shared numerous stories of men who had come to faith after committing some horrible crimes. A well-known, widely published evangelist interrupted me and drawled, “You do know, don’t you, that those people will say anything to get released?” I replied, “None of these people are getting out of jail because they converted to Christianity. Their faith isn’t excusing them from their crimes, but their lives are being changed. This man-made a dismissive sound, shook his head, and said, “You’re naive if you think they’re really becoming Christians. There are millions of good people out in the world who need to hear the good news. Why waste time on those who have already made their choice?” I was incredulous. This same man makes similar statements about the homeless, believers of other faiths, and homosexuals.
I encountered the same attitude a few years ago when I worked with a group to host a conference on The Great Commission. As we discussed “making disciples of Jesus Christ,” we talked about the challenges of a multi-cultural, multi-faith, pluralistic and diverse culture. I remarked that the growing awareness of world religions often meant that Christian leaders were ill-equipped to have intelligent conversation with spiritual seekers well-versed in the teachings of other religions. I have friends in Denver who report that most visitors to their church know as much about Buddhism as they do Christianity, and they want to know what the differences are and how the teachings are similar. I observed that Christian leaders need to be in dialogue with Buddhists (and teachers of other religions) so that we are better able to navigate the questions people have. “There is a lot we can learn from leaders of other faiths,” I said. I was immediately jumped on by various people around the table. “Those people have nothing to teach us!” “We shouldn’t listen to them, they should listen to us!” “Christians in no way should validate the lies of other religions.” “We have the truth. There is nothing to gain by pretending we don’t, or that what other people believe is as good as what we believe.” “We shouldn’t even have contact with those people.”
Those people. Them. Heretics. Or, as the Bible calls them, children of God. If we truly believe what our scriptures say, who currently walking this earth is not created in the image of God? Who do we not have an obligation to be in relationship with? Who is our witness for? Certainly not everyone will listen to us and accept our faith as their own. Does this mean we shouldn’t continue to live as Christ among them? Are there people who are beyond God’s grace? Is Christian witness only for those who will accept it? Who deserve it? Who we like? Who we approve of? What a slippery slope.
I can never understand when The United Methodist Church gets into discussions of who should be allowed in and who should be kept out. Any process of building dividing walls and creating uncrossable boundaries leaves me cold. Even if I disagree with someone completely, I will have absolutely no influence on that person if I refuse to interact with them. If there is something I deem a “sin,” ostracizing the sinner is the very last thing I should desire to do. My ability to offer a positive Christian witness requires proximity.
Evangelism can be either aggressive or apologetic. We can batter people with our beliefs, or we can share them. We can tell others what we think they ought to believe and do, or we can describe how our beliefs and behaviors have been transformed by our relationship with God. We can harp on the costs of not believing or we can celebrate the benefits of belief. We can threaten or we can invite. We can offer people an ultimatum or we can offer people a gift. But I believe we need to be willing to offer our witness to ALL.