What’s a Christian to Do with Multi-Faith?

download   Coexist.  If you’re from the West, you will likely have seen this slogan adorning bumper stickers, pamphlets, t-shirts, key chains, and possibly even church sign boards.  If you’re in my generation (under 30s) you probably have also grown up hearing logic like this:

  • All religions are equal, there are many paths to God and our role is simply to respect and learn how to COEXIST with one another.
  • Truth is relative. What works for me, might not work for you, but we can still COEXIST, mutually loving one another even despite our apparent differences.
  • “The truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” (Hindu Expression)…Therefore the wise COEXIST with one another, whereas the unwise bicker and dispute.
  • Or in slightly more sophisticated language (in the words of Professor Ali Assani of Harvard University: “The divine purpose underlying human diversity is to foster knowledge and understanding, to promote harmony and co-operation among peoples. God did not create diversity to become a source of tensions, divisions, and polarizations in society.  Indeed, whether humans recognize it or not, human diversity is a sign of spiritual genius.” (http://www.twf.org/Library/Pluralism.html).  Therefore, COEXISTING is a sign of our increasing intelligence, maturity, and desire to learn with and from one another.  Whereas failure to COEXIST is a sign of close-mindedness, rigidity, and disrespect.

At the surface, this all sounds rather easy in a hippy sort of way.  Sure, let’s just get along, respecting one another, and seeing the value in the various viewpoints people espouse.  But is it really so simply to act out in our day to day living?

In the West, we are fast becoming more and more multicultural, multiethnic, and thus multi-religious.  Due to factors such as immigration, cross-cultural communication, and emigration of our own peoples, we are no longer a mono-religious society, nor will we likely be one ever again.  On any given day, I engage with and walk past people who identify as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, New Ageist, spiritual but not religious, Agnostic, Atheistic, and those who do not yet identify as having a religion.  There are, of course, various levels to which these people practice their faiths from very strict and religious observers, to nominal church goers, to secular Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and to cultural devotees who do not agree with their religion’s core doctrines.  Furthermore, among the various people groups I encounter, there is a wide range of beliefs surrounding interfaith.  Some are more than happy to build friendships with people outside of their tradition whereas others prefer to keep connections only with those similar to themselves.  Some are interested in exploring other religions (possibly going to a temple, church, synagogue, or mosque despite it not being their tradition), and others warn against such “evils.”  Therefore, the possibility of interfaith dialogue is not always an apparent opportunity.

Yet, because of shifts in socio-cultural and religious understanding, it is important for us to become more aware of the differences and similarities other people groups bring to our country and our world.  Below I’d like to suggest a few key points for making interfaith dialogue more readily accessible to all:

  • Being Aware of Our Own Prejudices and Ideas

Let me begin by asking you a few simple questions: What makes someone a Christian?  A Jew?  A Muslim?  A Buddhist?  An Atheist?

Do you think it is more meaningful to belong to a certain religious group or can one also engage in a meaningful life by being spiritual but not religious, not identifying with any specific group, or even being an atheist?

Can someone who is an atheist still have a deeply spiritual life?
Think about your answers.  Where do they come from?  Did you yourself grow up in one particular tradition?  Who were the people you were exposed to from your earliest childhood memories?  How did your parents shape and inform your religious views and identities (or did they)?  Were your parents adamant that you follow one specific tradition, or did they allow for exploration, open-mindedness, and dialogue ultimately letting the decision fall on you?

There are no necessarily right or wrong answers to these questions, but being aware of how we would respond to them helps create a good basis for where our interest in multi-faith relations comes from.

Additionally, we need to be reminded of how our culture and church shapes our views of other religions.  For example, it is an unfortunate reality, but many children today are growing up with a rather Islamophobic understanding of the world because of news reports and media coverage about extremist groups such as ISIS or Hamas.  This attitude sadly even extends into some churches which may become saturated with Zionistic tendencies, even using unfair examples to portray what they believe to be End Time prophecies.  Whereas, someone who grew up in the WWII era in Europe would very likely have been exposed to Anti-Semitism.  Certain Americans (though certainly not all) may be exposed to white supremacy and come to wrongly associate white religious expressions as more valid than those that people of colour follow.

It is also important to note that within each religion there are a multitude of different opinions regarding gender roles, sexual identity, political viewpoints, dietary restrictions, and many other topics.  This is because each religion is internally diverse.  For example, in Christianity we see male headship, but we also see feminism.  We see Christian arguments for vegetarianism, but also arguments against.  We see Christian groups which do not readily seek converts (such as the Amish), and we see evangelical groups who believe in street and door-to-door evangelism.  In each of these cases, the people who make up the group are still Christian, are likely very sincere in their approaches and their faith, but also are extremely different from one another.

  • Understand the Reason For Your Dialogue

People engage in inter-faith dialogue for a variety of reasons and with many different motivations.  For some it is simply a means of seeking out evangelistic opportunities.  They may believe that by attending these groups or making friends with people outside of a different faith that they may be able to help the other person see the need to join their specific group.  This is especially true of many Evangelical Christians. At the very least, even if the person does not convert, they still look forward to at least sharing their own beliefs and stating their own opinions (check this out for more reasons people engage inter-faith: https://western-hindu.org/2012/02/18/importance-of-dialogue-a-hindu-perspective/).  The Bible certainly DOES encourage us to engage with people of other faiths, to go into the world and share and testify to our relationship with Christ, and to disciple one another, but it all depends on our motivation for doing so.  Creating friendships and building bridges with the intent of truly getting to know the other person, forming a loving relationship, and striving for peaceful conversations are all good reasons to do so.  Excessive arguing, shaming, belittling or even attacking the other person’s viewpoints are not a good way to go about it.  Instead, we should be open-minded, trying to find level-ground, and willing to learn from the other person.  If you’d like to read my experience of spending time with a Muslim colleague who has become a very dear friend to me over the years and how we maintain strong ties without letting our religious viewpoints get in the way, please read this article: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/5-things-having-a-muslim-friend-taught-me/.

Furthermore, some people engage in inter-religious dialogue because they are interested in clarifying their own convictions or learning how to articulate them more clearly.  But the ultimate best reason to be part of the inter-faith movement is to break down barriers and grow in multiculturalism. 

  • Be Aware Of Your Religion’s Own Short-Comings

In his book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Rule the World, author Stephen Prothero explores how Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Yoruba Religion, Daoism and Atheism have all succeeded as well as failed at various points in their history.  Prothero also blogged about how it can be easy to display our religion’s best against the backdrop of another religion’s worst, but this is neither fair nor helpful (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/07/16/hinduisms-caste-problem-out-in-the-open/).  Each religion has at times floundered and been re-routed from their original founder’s viewpoints and ideal.  Each religion has been responsible for great acts of social justice and human dignity, but also for wars, division, and disunity.  It is therefore a gross injustice to make sweeping generalizations like “all Muslims are extremists and terrorists” or “all Christians are welcoming, nice, and friendly.”  It may sound like common sense, but you’d be surprised at how many people do this (consciously or unconsciously).  Even though people might never say these words out loud, they might often think them in their head, which can be just as dangerous and destructive.  Protero also rightly notes how easy it is to justify our own religion’s misdeeds while not offering the same level of forgiveness to other people groups.  For example, we might say, “the Christians involved in the Holocaust were not true Christians.  True Christians love people and always do what is right because they are following Jesus.  The people who did such atrocious acts simply paid lip service to God without a change in their heart or soul.”  We then may turn around and make sweeping generalizations of other groups we deem to be violent or dangerous.  Instead, we should humbly ask forgiveness for the things our religion has done that has harmed others and take responsibility rather than shifting the blame onto another.

Professor Assani once again gives some good advice on this topic “for in the end, a struggle against the flaws of the ‘other’ is worthwhile only if it is coupled with a struggle against the flaws of one’s own tradition.” (http://www.twf.org/Library/Pluralism.html)

Dr. Shaye Cohen (director of Jewish studies at Harvard) gives a similar statement when warning against the proof-texting that so often accompanies these sorts of discussions: “We don’t take the Bible out and put our finger on the page and say, ‘you see, look what it says.’  To which my response is always, ‘yes, but what does it MEAN?’  You have to interpret it and you have to see what the interpreters have said and then we can talk about it.”

  • Learn All You Can About Other Religions

I recently completed a 6 month certificate course through Harvard University Online (HarvardX) called “World Religions Through Their Scriptures.”  This course has been an invaluable tool for me and has opened up my mind to all sorts of new possibilities.  Previously, I hardly knew anything about Hinduism or Buddhism, but now I am beginning to see how to have a much more fruitful dialogue with people in these faiths.  The certificate included courses on: Religious Literacy – Traditions and Scriptures, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism and was taught by a superb teaching staff including professors who practiced the religion themselves.  When I first started, I was nervous.  I actually thought I might struggle in my own faith because Harvard is a rather liberal and secular school, so I asked some of my Scottish friends to pray for me about it.  Instead of decreasing my faith, though, it actually had quite the opposite effect.  I constantly was making new discoveries into what I personally believed, was seeing more and more of a need for these types of dialogues to happen across religious boundaries and barriers, and oftentimes came to many spiritual encounters which only confirmed and strengthened my own faith.  I think this is the key to beginning these types of dialogues – we need to be willing to learn and grapple with as much of a different religion as we can.  We also need to be humble and ask people what they believe and think, we should not solely rely on our own experience, education, or opinions to guide us.  Even if we believe we are experts in a certain religion, we still need to realize that everyone will follow their beliefs and practice their faith in a slightly different way because each person’s experience is unique.  If you would like to learn more about this course, you can access all of the materials for free indefinitely at: https://www.edx.org/xseries/world-religions-through-scriptures#courses   (You may also want to check out this site for more information: http://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/how-think-about-religion).

So…what’s a Christian to do with Interfaith? It ends up a whole lot.  Our responsibility as believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is not to flee from challenge or to deny our rapidly changing and expanding world, but rather it is to engage and engage in love. In our quest to do Kingdom work, we are to find ways to share our faith with others, but also let them share their faith with us.  We are to dialogue rather than debate, to actively seek peace rather than to create hostility.  We are to promote unity within diversity rather than ignore the wars and strife that religions can sometimes create.  When we put forth this effort, when we share in a cross-cultural meal joining hearts and hands with those much different than ourselves, and when we truly believe that global harmony is possible – we are bringing about God’s Kingdom.  I’m not saying to lay aside evangelism completely, not at all.  I’m not saying to hide your faith, but I’m actually saying the opposite.  I’m saying: be bold in your declaration of the Gospel of Christ, share it freely, but do it in love.  Do it in service.  Do it with sensitivity and compassion.  Do it in the spirit of inter-faith. 

If you are interested in having a meaningful inter-faith dialogue here’s a great website that might aid you in your discussions: http://www.scoutinterfaithworship.org/ten_suggested_rules_for_interfai.htm

 

These pictures represent just a small fraction of the books I have in my personal library on multi-faith.  It is fascinating to see the role religion plays in our daily lives: from children’s Bibles to Bible trivia to joke books.  It is also interesting to see how we can truly co-exist with one another.  Just like the books are each their own unique entity, but they live on the same book-shelf, we can do the same in our relationships with people of other faiths.  

How to Evangelize When You Don’t Believe in Evangelism

Man giving a talk but only a dog is listening.  Today I celebrated my younger cousin’s wedding in Michigan with a number of my relatives and several of the bride and groom’s friends.  Summer is always buzzing because of wedding season.  This summer alone, my family has been invited to 7 weddings, and we know of at least 2 that are currently being planned for next year.  Weddings are a wonderful time of laughter, tears, and joy.  They are also a perfect example of telling a story.

In a wedding, the love story between the bride and groom is told in multiple ways.  Traditionally, the story includes not just the couple themselves, but also their families, their closest friends, their pastor, their church, and God.  The story is told repeatedly when the bride joins hands with her husband, when they are pronounced a couple under the union and Lordship of Christ, when they exchange their rings as a token of their affection and respect for one another, when they promise to love each other regardless of the difficulties and challenges that life together will bring, when they seal their vows with a kiss, and when they wear their shoes out on the dance floor.  Although I am a feminist and planning to do away with the majority of traditions in my own future wedding, I must admit that the parents also play an important role in this unique love dynamic between the bride and groom.

Historically, the groom went to seek the bride’s family’s permission for marriage.  This is not necessarily because the bride is “property” or “owned” by her mom and dad, but rather because the parents are the gatekeepers.  They are the ones who protect and nurture their daughter until someone else promises to do the same for her.  And they prove their love to their child by their approval and honouring her future husband.  The parents once again tell this same story when they walk their daughter down the aisle – sharing in one last moment and bond before she is forever wedded to a new family and invited into a new home.

Today, the pastor mentioned something I have never thought about before.  You will recall that I just mentioned I am a feminist and for years I have taken issue with the idea of a father walking his bride down the aisle.  I viewed this as seeing a woman as merely property and lording his authority over his daughter in a way that is not expected of a son.  Yet, today, the pastor mentioned that this is really a sign of how God formed Eve out of Adam’s breast, and brought her to him.  This natural companionship, fashioned by God as the ideal for human relationships, shows us how God – the Father, gave away the first bride, Eve.

Being at the wedding also encouraged me to think about evangelism in broader terms.  Yesterday, I met with the chaplain at my grandmother’s nursing home.  He and I ended up chatting for about half an hour and he asked me how I would describe evangelism.  I responded, “telling other people about Jesus and making disciples.”  But he gave me an altogether different definition.  He mentioned that evangelism is really all about telling a spiritual story.   It’s about sharing with others what God has done and is doing in your life (also called testimonies) and it’s about honouring God by living a life that tells about His creation and His good work even when our culture pressures us to go in a different direction.

I went to a fairly evangelical Bible College and it was instilled in us that we need to go and convert the masses.  I became frustrated because I noticed that quite a few (though certainly not all) Mennonite churches weren’t doing that.  In fact, when I confronted my pastors suggesting that they could do a whole lot more than they were willing to try, they made some remark about how Anabaptists have suffered severe persecution over the years and I need to be more understanding of the tradition they are coming out of.

I am willing to say that perhaps I don’t have that big of an understanding of religious persecution coming from the cushy west and maybe that makes me lack sensitivity.  However, in my opinion, persecution is not a reason to stop witnessing.  In fact, it is exactly BECAUSE of persecution, that many have come to know Christ.  When someone is willing to be bold in their declaration of Christ even though it may cost them property, status, wealth, or their life, others around them take note.  And I am pretty sure those who have lost their life for the cause would be greatly disappointed that those of us who have it easy are apathetic when it comes to evangelism.   In fact, one of my friends, a staunch atheist with absolutely no interest in religion at all mentioned to me that the reason she respects Christianity is because “if people were willing to die for something they believed to be the truth, maybe I should start taking this whole thing more seriously.”

Nevertheless, I’d like to suggest that if you are uncomfortable standing out in the middle of the street handing out tracts, preaching from a soapbox in the park, or going door-to-door, don’t worry.  That’s really not what it’s all about.

Instead, it’s about how we choose to live out our faith on a day-to-day basis.  When you experience a profound answer to prayer, it’s about raising your hands to heaven and thanking God rather than just rationally justifying how the event took place.  When your friend is struggling it’s about actually taking the time to pray for them, not just saying a bunch of “feel-good” words.  When you go about the most menial tasks – cooking for your children, cleaning the house for the fifth time that day, assisting an elderly person or someone with a disability with personal care, doing paperwork, writing a research proposal, seeking out funding for a grant – you respond to each person as if they were Christ in the flesh.  You don’t raise your voice in anger or protest, you don’t show signs of impatience or frustration – you take a moment to pause, ask the Lord for counsel, and receive His great wisdom.  Every act becomes one of worship.  Every bush is ablaze.  Every moment is sacred.

A few months ago I was on the bus about to meet with one of my church friends when all of a sudden a profound realization hit me.  Those of you who have me as a Facebook friend will probably have read about it:

Many people say that that they feel uncomfortable when it comes to evangelism.  They may think it’s backwards, stuffy, or arrogant to suggest that their way is the only correct one.  In a world that promotes individual choice and freedom of religious expression, you don’t want to be singled out as the “odd-kook who still believes this Jesus stuff.”  Yet, if we were to be honest with ourselves, almost everyone evangelizes in some way (even including non-religious people).  For example, you may have a favourite restaurant, movie, coffee shop, book, or hobby.  You may have a favourite park, picnic area, or tourist destination.  When you hear that your friend is travelling through a certain area and you know all about what that area has to offer, you generally would not hesitate to share your knowledge and your experience.  You wouldn’t hold back about which hotel to stay at, which restaurants to eat at, which scenic route to take, and which to avoid.  The best fish and chip place in Scotland is something that makes you happy.  It’s something you don’t want to keep to yourself.  It’s something you want to tell the world (and especially) those you care for about.  If it was so great, you might even have left a review on Trip Advisor.  Even in the business world, sharing positive experiences of a certain product or place is called a “testimonial” – it’s about witnessing to others about what you’ve seen, experienced, and learned and encouraging them to do the exact same.  If we don’t hold back when it comes to these trivial things in life, why on earth would we choose to keep the love of Christ a secret?  Why would we hide the greatest gift God gives to humanity just because we’re afraid of looking dumb?

Perhaps you are convinced that you need to tell the Biblical and spiritual story more often, but you don’t know where to start.  Perhaps you are a bit shy and introverted, or you don’t have much experience sharing your faith, or you come from a tradition that has discouraged this.  Don’t worry, you can start small.  Think about all the things the world requires of us.  It wants us to buy into certain cultural norms of how to look, act, and think.  It wants us to become a slave to materialism, militarism, and oppression.  It wants us to believe that certain cultural and ethnic groups are preferred over others.  That certain socio-economic statuses and careers are greater than what most people achieve.  But if you are truly convinced about telling the spiritual story, you can see this in another way.  You can take that extra moment to get outside your comfort zone and to smile at the homeless man or woman you are passing on your way to church.  You can allow yourself to speak up about causes you really feel passionate about.  You can allow yourself to fan into flame a system that sees all people are relevant and important.  You can work on minimizing yourself (even though culture teaches us to be pretty self-absorbed) and instead use social media and networking to encourage and build others up.  It might not seem like you are sharing the Gospel, but you are and you are doing it in a way that is far more relevant than your average soapbox preacher.

We all tell stories in our lives.  Stories of love, stories of grace, stories of forgiveness, and stories of peace.  Oftentimes we tell more than one story a day and to more than one person.  Being a Christian is not only about continuing those stories, but allowing other people to enter into the story with us.  Permitting them to also play an important role, and ultimately asking God to be the divine Scriptwriter.  What is the story God is calling you to tell today?

On Cultivating Missionaility and Evangelism (Review of A.O. Green’s Article in a Living Alternative)

lamen

Throughout 2015, Z&P will be highlighting various chapters in the new Living Alternative book co-authored by the MennoNerds collective and published by Etelloc Publishing.  For the first blog post in this series check out: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/a-mennonite-seminarian-turned-pentecostal-intern-re-examines-an-anabaptist-approach-towards-signs-and-wonders/.

For too long, Western Christians have sat back, taken the easy and comfortable path of not questioning, and have seldom reached others for Christ largely due to fear of how the other person might react. Surrounded by the false security a maga-church may provide, we fail to truly live out the Gospel of Christ which commands us to feed the poor, to love our enemies, and to work alongside the marginalized.

In A.O. Green’s article entitled “Wine in New Wineskins: The Usefulness of 16th Century Anabaptist Evangelism Methods for Today’s Ekklesia,” A.O addresses the need for modern-day Anabaptist Christians to reclaim our biblical and historical roots as we seek to train up the next generation of faith-believing Christians and as we seek various avenues for proclaiming the Gospel to those who do not yet believe.

In a pinpointing sentence, A.O. boldly states, “At present, some have made a cottage industry out of devising newer expressions of Christianity in the areas of mission and evangelism.”[1] This sentence articulately suggests that many of our churches have become pre-occupied with how we look and how we are perceived by others, meanwhile we may be doing absolutely nothing in terms of helping curb racism, helping support single mothers, or teaching at-risk youth simple job skills.

From a practical viewpoint, I agree with A.O. that simply focusing all of our efforts on a single church building will not win many souls for Christ, if it is also not accompanied by social outreach. To further this thought, I deeply resonate with the words of Justus Menius, a Lutheran polemicist, “misleaders charge that we are not true servants of the Gospel because we are sinners, and don’t practice ourselves what we preach; because we don’t wander around in the world like the Apostles, but stay put and have definite residence and our appointed pay.”[2] This is further compounded by A.O.’s statistical evidence that despite the title many of us give ourselves as followers of Christ, and despite the fact that many of us would agree that evangelism and missions are important, very few of us are actually doing it. In his article, A.O cites Glen Kerr, author of Mastering the Art of Personal Evangelism who suggests that as low as 2% of all Christians are involved with evangelism and an additional 71% do not even support evangelicstical outreaches.[3]

These are troubling statistics, but they sadly do not surprise or shock me very much. As a seminary student, Bible college graduate, and practicing minister, I can attest to how little I personally have done in the way of evangelism despite years of training  in cultural diversity amongst various people groups. I can speak to my own fear of being let down, of not having the answers, and of not knowing what to say. I am constantly embarrassed by my own lack of enthusiasm for such endeavours considering my educational background which included courses centering around the missional church, evangelism, and global awareness when my brothers and sisters in various countries in the world are willing to lose their life for this same Gospel.

The Lord has compelled me of this on several occasions. In the interest of time, I will only highlight two of them.

When I was 19, I began a placement at a local Jewish nursing home interning under the chaplain. I was told that I was to be respectful of all religious viewpoints and whereas I could share my own views if I was ever asked them directly, I was not to impose them upon anyone else. I believe in religious tolerance and try to live a life of mutual respect and fidelity with all, but my heart continued to break for these Jewish seniors as they came to the end of their life. On more than one occasion as an elderly man or woman was approaching their death, they would ask me whether they would be guaranteed entrance into heaven. I would assure them that it would all be okay. I told them they had lived a good life, done all they could, and tried to be faithful to their religious viewpoints. This seldom comforted them. Some of them would press me further, “well, what do you believe?” Instead of sharing the Gospel with them, I would simply turn my head and mutter something along the lines that all religions were equal. One night I received a dream in which these residents were in a burning bus. The bus was full of smoke and I was on the outside. They were shouting at me “why are you standing there? See what you’ve done to us? You could have told us how to get out of here, but you didn’t!” This dream troubled me. From that day on I resolved that I wanted to be a better witness for Christ. I do not want it on my conscience that someone was denied a relationship with the Lord because I failed to let them know about His saving grace and mercy. Of course, I still maintain the understanding that ultimately a person should decide for themselves what they will believe, and it is not for me to guilt someone into my religious practices or instil fear in them; but after that experience, I no longer wanted to be shy about what I believe to be the truth.

My second story took place a year later when I was 20. I accepted a placement as a Day Camp Coordinator at a very liberal church camp where the majority of the staff were atheists and even the director of the camp herself was not a strong believer. One day, I took out my Evangecube (a picture puzzle highlighting the death and resurrection of Christ) and showed it to the campers. After the session, a little girl showed her mom using the cube how Jesus came to save us. Well, the camp director did not think too highly of that. She told me that I had overwhelmed these church kids with too much Jesus and that same day she fired me. Although I was deeply hurt by these events especially because I had tried to present the Gospel in the most respectful of ways without pressuring kids to believe or even talking specifically about hell and fire, I later took comfort in a story that one of my friends at seminary told me. She shared with me about hearing the Gospel message for the first time as a nine year old at a church camp. Although she hadn’t accepted Christ that day, the story stayed with her for years to come. She did not come from a Christian family and was never exposed to Christianity after that one summer, but later as a 15 year old she was invited to attend a local church with her friend. At that church she once again heard the Gospel message. That day she did accept the Lord, but she claims that had her camp counselor not put the seed in her years before it likely would never have happened.

As I reflect back on Christ’s call for us to be missional examples of His kingdom, I am reminded of how often I become preoccupied with my own looks rather than with Christ’s call and command. Frankly, I need to get over myself! I’ve often been surprised at how receptive my non-Christian friends truly are to attending church functions with me, some of which even include outright evangelism. Many of my non-Christian friends are respectful of my beliefs, curious about what the Bible says, and interested in serving alongside me. When I downplay my faith as if it is not important, I realize that I am actually doing them quite a disservice, not to mention being dishonest to my Lord and Saviour.

Perhaps not all forms of evangelism suit you, but certainly one form or method will. Perhaps you have skills in teaching and would be able to help assist in a Catechist class at your church, or perhaps you have hands-on abilities and could serve and live out the Gospel through a placement with Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, or the Salvation Army. Perhaps you have a heart for overseas development, but no interest in going over there yourself. You can support missions even right here in North America through generous donations to Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) or through the Mennonite Church’s Witness Program. Wherever your skills lie, you can help to bring the Kingdom of God about here on this earth. After all, just like A.O. reminded us and just like all Anabaptist likely would adhere to, “faith must be manifested by a holy life of obedience. Salvation…is not by faith alone, but by a faith that obeys.”[4]

Interested in reading more? Purchase Your copy at: http://www.amazon.com/Living-Alternative-Anabaptist-Christianity-Post-Christendom/dp/0989830411.  For more information: http://mennonerds.com/project/a-living-alternative/.

[1] Page 3

[2] Page 6

[3] Page 9

[4] Citing C. Arnold Snyder. Page 10 of Living Alternative

Why Christians Need to Hear the Gospel, Too

foh-hhbGreat music, good friends, and a Biblically solid message. Three of the main things in life that I never want to miss out on. It is for this reason that yesterday night, after I got back from a spiritually charged retreat, several of my seminary friends and I decided to head to downtown Toronto to take part in Franklin Graham’s Festival of Hope.

Over the years, I have developed both a deep respect for Billy and Franklin’s ministry, as well as a generally distrust of the type of crowd mentality that we see at these events. To me, it just seemed almost staged that after hearing a short salvation message for the first time, thousands would throng to the front of the room readily giving their lives over to a God they hardly know anything about. Some of these individuals having to make radically life altering decisions about dramatic changes in lifestyle and others having to face being forsaken by friends and family.

Yet, being at the event itself really challenged a lot of the preconceived ideas that I once held so dear. To be clear, this was not the first Billy Graham Crusade that I’ve been a part of (though I cringe at the word “Crusade” because of the negative images of persecution and terror it evokes in my mind). I’m glad Franklin decided to change it to something a little less threatening and a whole lot more positive.

I attended a Billy Graham Crusade for the first time when I was a pre-teen. It was a weekend packed with fun, great music (I remember seeing Toby Mac live for the first time), and testimonies. I also remember being caught up in the curiosity and emotionalism of it all. I followed the throng down the aisles and to the front where I did not give my life over to Christ (I was already a Christian at this point), but rather rededicated my life to Him. About a year following that event I sought out baptism in my local church.

Since I have never attended one of Graham’s crusades as a non-believer I have no idea what it must feel like to take part with no notion of Salvation in Christ. Nevertheless, I know that God is using the Graham family to accomplish great things for His Kingdom purpose.

You see, a large part of the problem I face with modern day big name evangelists and TV personalities is that I think the fame gets to their head. When Rob Bell, Joyce Myers, and Robert Schuller started off, they all had amazing things to say. To pick on Rob Bell, for example, when he first started writing and preaching he was not afraid to call people out for sins, he was not ashamed of the Gospel, and he said things which did not necessarily align him with the popular crowd. God used him to reach out to many in incredible ways. Then one day that all changed. Overtime, he became popular and with his popularity he became increasingly liberal to the point of saying that all religions essentially lead to the same path and that morality trumps Christianity.

I’m not saying that God doesn’t use these televangelists and big name writers today. In fact, in many ways, God is still using them to reach many of His Kingdom, however, something gets dramatically altered, lost, or just diluted once popularity gets in the way. That’s because the Christian message was never meant to be a popular one! If it was, why would countless thousands of individuals have had to lose their lives for it? Why would millions of Christians be persecuted each year around the world? Why would Jesus Himself have warned that if we are persecuted we need to take heart and remember that anything we go through in this life He has already been through twice over? [https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+15%3A20&version=NIV] You see, Jesus, Peter, and the Apostle Paul, all knew that the Christian life wasn’t easy. They all knew that by signing into it they were abandoning their comforts and losing their friends for the sake of a higher calling. And yet, for some reason, we feel that we can be popular AND Christian. We feel that we can half-heartedly follow Christ and believe in SOME of what He said (the good parts that earn us favour) while at the same time preaching motivational speeches that people want to hear. We have become so accustomed to “tickling the ears” of our hearers that we forget the true power behind the awesome theology that Christ has given to us! [https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Timothy+4%3A3&version=NIV]

This is one reason why Franklin Graham stands out as a man whom God has used. Franklin is one of the most popular preachers of our day – reaching millions globally each year, but yet, he stands firm in his faith, unwilling to compromise for the sake of looking good. And somehow God is using him. When I listen Franklin, he takes a stand against abortion, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex. His theology is not necessarily on par with some of what my Mennonite colleagues would agree with. However, the point is that He DOES take a stand regardless of how ill-favoured that stance might be in our materialistic and sex-saturated world. Standing before thousands of people at the Air Canada Center he preaches that dishonouring one’s parents is the same as murder – all sins are equal in the eyes of God.

His message is a simple one: forgiveness, hope, and healing found only in and through Christ. He does not preach to impress. He’s a good speaker, but probably not the most remarkable one I have ever heard. He preaches from a manuscript – not memorized, despite the fact that He’s given the Gospel message a thousand times over. His sermon is short, sweet, and to the point. He explains our predicament as sinners, our need for a Saviour, and the love of Christ. He closes with a prayer and with his father’s signature theme song “Just as I Am” and thousands come to the front without any hesitation.

Perhaps there is a temptation to think that Franklin is only popular because of his father’s name. His Dad did all the work as the fiery evangelist and now Franklin is just basking in the remaining rays of glory. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the whole side of the story. As Christians, we’re all called to evangelize – to live missionally, however you want to say it. We’re all called to proclaim Shalom. Yet, not everyone has the gift of evangelism in the same way that Graham does. You or I could preach the exact same message, just like we’re called to, but somehow I think that if I was to get up in front of the crowd at ACC they wouldn’t flock to the front like they did with Franklin. The reason I think that people’s lives are radically changed by God during these crusades is because Franklin fervently believes what he preaches. He is not just saying it to be popular and then living a different lifestyle throughout the rest of the week. Instead, the congregation is met by authenticity and faithfulness to the Biblical texts.

Before I left, the Seminary Student Council President asked my friends and I, “so really what is this all about? You’re all Christian and yet you’re going. What if everyone at this event is a Christian?” These words are important ones to think about. I’m in my last year of my MDiv. I’ve studied theology for 5 years and I am comfortable in exegesis, interpretation, and analyzing the Biblical texts. I even have started learning Koine Greek. So, why am I, a seminary student, attending an event meant for baby Christians and those who haven’t even started their walk with Christ yet rather than a deeply rooted hard-core theological lecture on the nature of the religious affections?

The answer is simple and is found in what the president told me next, “Even Christians need to hear the Gospel.” I’ve been a Christian for almost 20 years and I can tell you that what this young man said is completely bang on. For those of us who have grown up in the church and spent more time in the church than out of it, I think it is so easy for us to forget the simple and yet profound message of the cross. The more I spend time in seminary, the more I am drawn to religious debates, intense arguments over trivial theological differences which have split churches, and deconstructing worship styles or liturgy. And yet, how easy it is for me to forget the real reason I am in seminary in the first place.

Growing up in the church, we can enter into a calm indifference about out walk with the Lord. We become so desensitized to how sin actually destroys humanity and to the gruesome punishment Christ underwent for us. We become so accustomed and entitled to His love and mercy that we forget what a genuine gift it really is and how none of us are deserving of His grace.

Yes, even Christians need to hear the Gospel message preached again and again. Even Christians need to be reminded that Christianity is not the popular choice – that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. Even Christians need to go to Billy Graham Crusades to be awakened, challenged, and forced to make a difference!

[https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+8%3A20&version=NIV]

Missional Living and Evangelism – Is There a Difference?

For the last few years the phrase missional living has been tossed around in my mind and in my congregation.  Not carelessly tossed around, mind you.  But rather well thought out.  An invitation into a discussion evolving around how one can incarnationally live out the truth of Christ and His desire to see a reign of justice, mercy, and peace take place in this world.

I’ve notice that there seems to be a bit of a disconnect, though, between the more “evangelical” churches and the so-called “liberal” churches.  I’ve been a part of both camps as an observer, a participant, a member, and a university placement student.  I spent a large portion of my young, formative years in more conservative and evangelical camps where you had to remember the day that you became a Christian or you weren’t really one.  If you had doubts, you would look at the cover of your Bible to reassure yourself that you truly did belong to Christ.  I’ve also belonged to the more liberal churches – believe what you will as long as you live out a life of love, peace, and joy.  Churches which said it wasn’t my place to tell someone who was not a Christian they were wrong.  It wasn’t my place to try to convert anyone, but rather I should help that individual to live out their lives and their spirituality in the fullest way that is possible to them.

So, who’s right and who’s wrong?  The answer: both camps have things going for them and both camps have things going against them.

Let’s dissect the more conservative churches first.  Growing up, I was part of a culture which taught children “you should accept Jesus today because you never know if you will be alive tomorrow.  Anything could happen.  You could die in a car accident tonight.”  Looking at this type of theological position at my age, however, is a bit more than simply unnerving.  For one, I disagree with this type of preaching because it is so heavy on scare tactics.  We would shake our heads if someone made a decision for what school to attend, what major to pursue, or which geographical house to buy on the whim without thinking it out.  So, I tell you today that Queen’s University (just for an example) is prestigious and that my brother went there and you automatically sign up for the same program he was in without doing your research, without knowing anything else about Queens, and without even knowing the options for courses that are offered there.  Perhaps it will work out for you.  Perhaps not.  So, if we cringe and think decisions made on the fly are foolish for things in this life, why should we not apply that same mindset for the most important decision of our lives.  One in which not only our present life but also our eternity will be built?

What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t just make a decision to follow Jesus on the fly because we are scared of what COULD happen.  YES, you could die at any time.  Yes, none of us knows the future.  However, it is highly improbable that that will happen to you.  The average person needs to hear the Gospel 6 times before they will accept it as truth.  So, why should we make all those times full of doom and gloom?  We should focus instead on making it a positive thing.  Not feeding into this mindset that God is an angry God who is willing to banish someone to hell just because they didn’t make a split second decision.  To me, a God like that would be rather fickle.  I’m just not interested in serving that type of God.

Another thing that I rebel against from my childhood experience is the concept of evangelism without discipleship.  I definitely believe there is a place for sharing the Gospel, however, I would argue that discipleship is a far more important piece than simply sharing the Gospel.  You see, when we just go out into the world to convert others and then we leave them a week or two later what have you really done?  Did not Jesus Himself warn against this type of conversion tactic when He said,  You Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You travel over land and sea to win one follower. And when you have done so, you make that person twice as fit for hell as you are.” (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+23:1-15)

Lastly, I am not sure where I stand on altar calls.  I believe that there are good ways to do them as well as not so good ways.  I’ve witnessed churches which do altar calls in such a non-evasive way and then churches which use them for show.  Perhaps, some people do need an invitation to truly come forward and surrender their lives to Christ.  For others, perhaps this is seen as too forward.  I believe God can use altar calls, but I would strongly disagree that this needs to be the case for every conversion.  In fact, I would say that it probably needs to be the case in less than 10% of all conversions.

Now let’s turn to the more “liberal” churches.  I think, perhaps unfortunately, that the more liberal churches DO tend to emphasis acts of social justice and justice more than the conservative churches do.  At least in my experience, though there are certainly evangelical churches which do care about creation care and social inclusion.  I say, unfortunately, not because I think that the liberal churches are doing anything wrong by espousing this type of theology, but rather because I wish ALL churches would actively pursue a reign of justice and peace in this world.

However, the downside of the more liberal churches is that some of them tend to lean more to the side that everyone is right and because everyone is right we should not offend anyone.  This does not make logical sense because it is impossible for every single person to be right since when it comes down to it many ideas contradict themselves.  Having a personal moral ethic may work in some cases, but it does not always work when it comes to global and political affairs.

I have been shut down from teaching the Gospel in liberal churches before even though I have never used scare tactics.  To me, my life and my walk with Jesus Christ is the most precious and powerful thing going.  I cannot imagine life without Him and that is the reason I want to share about His love and forgiveness with everyone I come into contact with.

My personal ethic of evangelism is not about shaming someone or telling them that they are wrong.  It is my belief that we should respect and honour everyone regardless of their spiritual preferences or religious leanings.  At the same time, I am aware that the Bible espouses Jesus (not Ghandi or Buddha) as being the ultimate choice.  That’s not to say that I can’t also get to know other religions because I truly believe that each religion has much to offer and in reading their holy books I often stand back amazed at the similarities we share.  But in the end of the day, my personal understanding of the Bible is that we are called to follow the Great Commission.  To go out into the world preaching the Gospel AND disciplining.[1]

So, let me pose the question again: who is right and who is wrong?  The truth is, it’s not an either/or dichotomy, it’s a both/and dichotomy.  It’s about unashamedly sharing the Gospel, BUT also caring about social justice and peace advocacy rather than only caring about the number of converts.  Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is God’s powerful method of bringing all who believe it to heaven. This message was preached first to the Jews alone, but now everyone is invited to come to God in this same way.”[2]  If we are followers of Jehovah God, there is no reason to be ashamed to unabashedly share our faith because it is Gospel – Good News.  It is the saving message of Christ.  If we had the cure for cancer we wouldn’t keep it to ourselves, we would give it to everyone we know who is sick and dying of cancer.  How much greater is the Gospel which has the power to save EVERYONE from death and the grave?  From the very effects of their sin and to offer them hope and peace.

Ultimately, I have found that what I understand from studies and much personal research to be the Anabaptist vision of missional living greatly articulates my already held belief that we are to incarnate Christ.  In missional living we serve the least of these and offer them a cup of cold water.  We do not simply preach the Gospel without living the Gospel.  We choose to be faithful followers of God going into places of darkness, despair, and hardship.  We live in neighbourhoods that are rough or we live in intentional communities that reach out to people who are otherwise shunned by society.  In missional living we don’t just preach the Gospel, but we empower others to live the Gospel just as we are living the Gospel.  Sometimes we empower them to live the Gospel out even before they know the vocabulary of evangelism.  The Christianese. 

Intentionally living missionally requires a commitment and a dedication to walk alongside others not just for a short time, but for the long haul.  It’s easy to preach the Gospel once.  Even twice.  It’s a lot harder to form an ongoing relationship, an ongoing mentorship, where community is fostered and grows.  It’s hard to not see progress overnight.  It may be hard to patiently toil and pray for YEARS before a person accepts Christ, but once the decision is made we will know that is was not made in vain but with careful consideration.  Living missionally strips away the altar call and transforms us into Christ’s living altar calling each individual into a deeper awareness and fulfillment of themselves.

That’s why I want to encourage each one of us who considers ourselves a Christian to choose this lifestyle.  A lifestyle not of scare tactics and rushed decisions, but one of careful observation and fellowship.  When we do this we will gain many friends and pilgrims along the way.

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Towards an Ethic of Evangelism

The word “ethic” has become a buzz word in our society.  People speak of business ethics, bioethics, and work ethic.  People talk about ethics in relationship to interpersonal relationships, professional standings, and global affairs.  Many university and master’s degrees require courses in ethics.   Being called an ethical worker is a compliment representing integrity and a level of trust, and having a solid work ethic shows dedication and commitment to an organization or project.  Yet, it was not until a few days ago that I really started thinking about ethics in a different way.  The ethics of evangelism.

You see, I went to Tyndale University, a very staunch evangelical school where people did street evangelism and went on mission’s trips with no other agenda than saving souls.  I took courses on evangelism and global Christianity and began to become aware of how many countries around the world did not have a Bible in their own language.  At the same time, I was wrestling with my beliefs about not forcing the Bible on anyone else, not using scare tactics to win souls, and being respectful of myriad different expressions of spirituality and religious practices.

ImageI remember a few years back when the Make Poverty History bracelets were the rage.  I had a white one myself acquired either at university or in high school (I don’t remember which).  I also remember getting really into truly making poverty history believing that although each individual is just ONE person they ARE one person and they CAN make a difference.  For sure, I believe that becoming aware of and trying to abolish global poverty is something every Christian is called to.  As followers of Christ we MUST take a stand again systemic injustices and the false beliefs that certain individuals are better than others because of their socio-economic status, their gender, or their ethnicity.  We must work for a future which enables all children to have a future and to have equal opportunities regardless of their level of ability or scholastic achievement.

Yet, as important as ending economic poverty is, I would also suggest that there is something else which is missing in our world.  We also need to end Bible poverty!  Before I went to IHOPKC (International House of Prayer in Kansas City) I didn’t even know that there was a name for the amount of people worldwide who did not have the Bible in their language.  During one of the worship services we had a speaker who was a worldwide leader and he told us that “Bible poverty was the greatest injustice.”

I’m thinking of my own life.  I’m thinking of the fact that I live in a country which has freedom of religion.  I have never truly had to hide my faith for fear that something majorly detrimental would happen.  Sure, I’ve met people along the way who are hardened atheists or simply indifferent to any form of religiosity, but to think that I had to hide away somewhere to avoid them is an absurdity and an untruth.  Not only that, but I personally own Bibles in at least 6 or 7 translations, can easily access a host of other translations online through Bible Gateway and own the Bible in English, French, Spanish, and German.  I have paraphrases of the Bible such as The Message as well as old school editions such as The King James Version.  I have no shortage of Bibles or Biblical material and meanwhile someone around the world doesn’t even have a PORTION (not even ONE chapter of it) in their own heart language. 

Image  I remember once when I was in university and attended the Lutheran church.  The speaker told us that we have both a heart and a head language.  He was from the Congo.  He could speak fluent English.  He could have an intelligent and meaningful conversation with us in English, but at the core of who he was, Lingala was still his heart language.  He could express himself in his tribal dialect in Lingala in a way that English only touched the surface of.  When he prayed in Lingala his prayers flowed with intense emotion and passion compared to when he prayed in English which seemed foreign and strange to him.  Lingala is the language which he used to emit phrases describing his deepest hopes, fears, happiness, and sadness.  And so this pastor told us that EVERY person should have the Bible available to them in their heart language because that is the language in which they can commune with God in the fullest and deepest way possible.

ImageWe have a core member (resident) at L’Arche who loves to use the phrase, “not telling…secret!”  I may ask her, “Mary-Anne what are you doing this weekend?” Her response? Not telling.  SECRET.  I may ask her, “What did you do at work today?”  Her response?  Not telling.  SECRET.  Finally, I may ask her “how old are you turning?”  Her response? Not telling.  SECRET.  In Mary-Anne’s case she actually happens to not be all that good at holding secrets in and it is only a matter of time before she caves and tells us whatever the answer to the question is.  She says it merely as a joke.  As a way of asserting the fact that she knows a truth which we don’t know and that this in some profound way gives her an authority or power that until we know the answer to it she holds a treasure which we are unaware of.  Yet, in my own life, I have adopted this attitude even during times when I had no intention of sharing the Gospel with another.

In my second year at Tyndale I did an internship at a multi-faith nursing home with the chaplain.  I was asked by residents on several occasions what I personally believed and even a few times if I thought Jesus was truly the Son of God.  Since I was perhaps a bit shy or embarrassed about my faith instead of giving them the Good News of the Gospels I responded with a NOT TELLING, SECRET type of attitude.  Sometimes I’m hanging out with non-Christian peers or co-workers and they’ll ask me something about the Scriptures.  Even though I went to Bible college and seminary I become flustered with their questions and because I don’t want my status to diminish among them I respond with Not telling…. Secret.  Sometimes I’m even in church and a theological disagreement arises.  One would think that church is the one place where I should feel free to share my thoughts and opinions about what I have studied, but instead because everyone else seems to take the other side of the debate I simply go into myself and when asked my opinion respond with not telling, secret.

Recently at a church Bible study, my “second father” (mentor) was reading from a paraphrase of the Bible.  I believe it was the CGV but I could be wrong.  The verse from 1 Corinthians 15 states, “you should be embarrassed that some don’t know about Christ.” (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+15&version=CEV)  That hit me like a ton of bricks.  Paul is saying it’s a downright embarrassment, a real shame that some don’t know the truth of the Scriptures and that in many countries the truths aren’t even available to them.

I think back to the verses in the Bible which say: 14 But how shall they ask him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them unless someone sends him? That is what the Scriptures are talking about when they say, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace with God and bring glad tidings of good things.”[b] In other words, how welcome are those who come preaching God’s Good News! (Romans 10:14-15 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+10&version=TLB)

It all reminds me of when I was in seminary and for one of my classes on different worship styles we attended an African Methodist Episcopal church.  In fiery African American style Rev. Tinsel boldly proclaimed, “It’s a DOWNRIGHT shame that some are going to bed hungry tonight.  It’s a DOWNRIGHT shame that people have to steal in order to have food on the table.  It’s a DOWNRIGHT shame that men were brought up in a culture that teaches they are allowed to commodify women.   It’s a DOWNRIGHT shame…”

I think she is right.  It definitely is a downright shame that there are people who live in poverty, who feel they aren’t good enough and who feel they aren’t capable of ever being loved.  It’s a downright shame that people lie and are dishonest.  It’s also a downright shame that we who know the truth of the Gospel remain smugly indifferent to the millions who have no possible way of knowing who Christ is.  Instead of getting dirty we remain on the sidelines of our faith watching from a distance.  God calls us to be active participants with the Scriptures not just passive observers and to be an active participant means to love and serve others and to work towards justice and a reign of peace on this earth!  To make the Kingdom of God happen in our day and age rather than just in the age to come. Image