Tag Archives: mission

The Intra-faith Quandary of John Allen Chau

go-therefore-and-make-disciples-of-all-nations-matthew-2819a

The tragic story of missionary John Allen Chau should cause us to ask: what is Christian mission in an interfaith world? 

The Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew has always been the impetus for doing mission in the world. It’s so familiar, we might not stop to consider what we mean when we read it or say it. But, in fact, it’s a prime example of our need for the intrafaith conversation. The recent death of Chau – and the controversy over his actions – reveal the dilemma. 

“Thinking about Missionaries: Stupid Fools or Believers Obeying Core Christian Beliefs?” on GetReligion hits the nail on the head (GetReligion is a website that attempts to highlight the religious aspects of news stories often neglected by mainstream news outlets). Author Terry Mattingly explains that he has three “hot-button” doctrinal questions that he finds “useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks.” In other words, the intrafaith conversation.

He goes on to say, “The Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.”
And w
hat is question No. 2? “Is salvation found through Jesus Christ alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  One of the big questions at the heart of the intrafaith conversation.

So, what’s the debate over Chau’s actions and death? The thing is: the definition and purpose of mission has been changing. In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Emmaus_a0000402Church in America (ELCA), mission is described as a journey, in which disciples  walk with others, listen to them, learn from them and with them. The biblical story used as a model is the “road to Emmaus,” in which the gospel is revealed in the relationship that develops among the travelers: in talking, listening, and breaking bread together. This way recognizes the mistakes of past history, such as seeing people as “objects of mission,” and defines mission as accompaniment.

On the other hand, there are those who still subscribe to the goal set forth by All Nations, the  mission-training organization which trained John Allen Chau: “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth.” 

The people on both sides of this interpretive chasm are faithful Christians. However, one side looks at the Chau story and sees an oblivious young man propagating the worst of Christian imperialism. The other sees a martyr who died attempting to fulfill Jesus’ mandate. Both have biblical texts and theologies to support their positions. Who is right? 

The better question is: how do we talk with our brothers, sisters, and siblings in the faith about such matters? 

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Bring All People to Faith in Christ?– Maybe Not

band_3815_logo_6Today’s intrafaith question:
What about the Great Commission?

In Chapter 9 of my book, I wrote:  If we do not reject the truth claims of other traditions, we may have some problems with our own. These dilemmas are not solely academic exercises. They are very practical issues that need to be addressed, for example, in our practices of evangelism and mission. As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The problem of Christian mission is is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

So it was with great interest that I read of the resolution passed by the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) at its annual assembly in June. You can read the full resolution here, but the bottom line is this:

Whereas in the light of the growing positive and rich multi-faith engagement of the 21st century, we have come to a new humility about the question of God’s relation to other religions: Be it resolved that the New England Synod memorialize the ELCA Churchwide Assembly to initiate a process to amend the phrase “bring all people to faith in Christ” in C4.02b and its constitutional parallels in order to achieve greater consonance with both our understanding of Christian witness and sensitivity to our interfaith contexts.

I actually learned about this resolution from a blogger who is adamantly opposed to any such change which would “soft-pedal our faith” and move us further “out of historic and traditional Christian heritage and closer toward cultivating a rampant religious universalism.”

As much as I agree with and applaud the resolution and distain the language of demonic apostasy in the blog, I certainly recognize the intrafaith challenge presented here. What do we do with the mandate presented in Matthew’s Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations”? What is Christian mission anyway?

I also applaud the second part of the resolution:
Be it further resolved that the resources of the ELCA enlist and consult its teaching theologians, Bishops, and other leaders in the drafting of such an amendment for consideration at its subsequent CWA.

We need input from theologians who will take seriously our understanding of mission in the midst of our religious diversity. I am sure there are members of our congregations who fall all along the continuum of belief about Christian mission: from the position of the resolution to the orthodox blogger. I’m also sure that many would welcome serious theological guidance from the church in answer to their questions about faith in the 21st century.

How about you? What do you think the Great Commission means today?

 

 

 

The INTRAfaith Conversation at Synod Assembly

 

Last week The INTRAfaith Conversation went to the annual assembly of the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

At least for an hour.

My presentation was one among a group of offerings  during the Saturday afternoon workshop time. It was a decidedly truncated version of my workshop at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, but it was just as stimulating – and affirming of my assertion that this is a wanted and needed conversation in the church today.

Some recurring themes:

  • How can we talk non-judgementally/non-dogmatically to young people about their faith/God questions?
  • How can we understand baptism in a non-exclusionary way?
  • If other religions are valid, why did Jesus have to die?
  • What is the goal of evangelism? Is Christian mission about conversion?
  • How can we express our Christian identity, unapologetically but not offensively?
  • What do we do about language in our scriptures, liturgies, hymnody, etc. that imply Christian superiority?

Great questions!

And as I always say: there are no cookie-cutter answers to these questions. However the answer to the question of methodology is conversation. If you want to know how to get a conversation  started, check out The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? It’s a congregation-friendly way of getting started.
And if you have questions, comments, stories to share, please feel free to contact me. I’d love to hear from you!

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Are the Days of Doing Evangelism Over?

I read an interesting blog post the other day called Why Progressive Christians Can’t Evangelize, which critiques the accompaniment model adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In Global Mission for the 21st Century, the ELCA defines accompaniment as:
walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality. The basis for this accompaniment, or what the New Testament calls koinonia, is found in the God-human relationship in which God accompanies us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The blog author, however questions whether most of us have seriously reflected on the who, what, why, and whether of Christian mission. In other words: why do we think it’s a good thing to share the gospel in the first place? And while he doesn’t disagree with the need to be sensitive to our history of colonialism, he does warn that “our fear of colonialism is performed daily in our tepid to non-existent faith-sharing.”

It was an interesting post. But what followed made it even more so. In the “Comments,” a reader confessed to his or her own struggle with the issue:
 I firmly base my life on the death and resurrection of Jesus (or try to), and believe that through my baptism into Christ’s death, I will share in a resurrection like his. HOWEVER, I am not convinced that everyone needs to be a Christian . . . if I meet, say, a Buddhist, who has found meaning, and a spiritual path, and is exhibiting “good fruits,” why should I attempt to “evangelize” her?

And that is the INTRAfaith question!

As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The 

problem of Christian mission is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of 

Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

Documents such as “Global Mission for the 21st Century” and “Accompaniment” that are available from my denomination (and I am sure from others) are important teaching tools. But I don’t know how many of our congregations are using them.

The conversation needs to happen at the grass roots. And a fine place to start is with the experiences that most of us have had with people of other religions and cultures. The question is no longer “if I meet a Buddhist (or a Jew or a Muslim, etc.),” but when I do . . . then how am I to think about evangelism?

When you go out with your evangelism team to knock on doors on your neighborhood and a man in a turban answers – or a woman in a hijab – or a man in a yarmulke – or a monk in saffron robe, what are you going to say?

There are, of course, several theological options. And you’ll probably find a variety in your own church. It’s not only an interesting question for pastors to ponder, it’s a necessary one for the whole church as we ponder together the place of Christianity in a multi-religious world.

Beyond Tolerance

Jo-Mead-Beyond-ToleranceTolerance … usually has an elitist lining; either an elitist lining in the sense that you can be tolerant because for you it is not that important, or an elitist lining of noblesse oblige I know, but I cannot expect the other to know as much as I do. – Krister Stendahl.

Words matter. The meanings of words also change. Consider the ongoing discussions about the differences between interfaith and multifaith or between interfaith and interreligious. That debate is a topic for another book, but it points to the evolving picture of this work.

We could say the same of the word “tolerance.” I’ve often seen the “Practice Tolerance”tolerance3 bumper sticker, with “Tolerance” spelled out with symbols of the world’s religions, and know that it’s meant to be an inclusive sentiment. When Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he spoke of “a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity.” Since the Congress was the first formal gathering of representatives from both Eastern and Western traditions, it is easy to understand why he paired persecution and intolerance in his speech. Tolerance was then a great improvement over prejudicial beliefs and actions.

But there are problems with the word tolerance. It can imply a willingness to put up with something disagreeable or disliked. If I say that I tolerate you, I convey a very different thing than if I say that I admire or respect you. The issue came to the fore in the global arena in the year 2000 at the United Nation’s Millennium Religion Summit. As reported by Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the head of the Hindu delegation proposed that the term “mutual respect” be substituted for the word “tolerance” in the Summit’s final document “Commitment to Global Peace.” According to Malhotra, the words became a fierce topic of debate, in which adherents of the Abrahamic religions were strongly challenged to respect the non-Abrahamic religions as equals. Mere tolerance was not enough.

This was not a matter of mere political correctness. Christians, by agreeing to go beyond tolerance to mutual respect, begin to swim into the deep waters of church teachings about salvation. Although Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict), head of the Vatican delegation, objected strongly to the wording of the resolution, “mutual respect” won the day. However, the Vatican quickly issued a statement that affirmed that while “followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”

Inherent in these challenges is the Christological question: in light of our religious
diversity who and what is Jesus? If we do not reject the truth claims of other traditions, we may have some problems with our own. These dilemmas are not solely academic exercises. They are very practical issues that need to be addressed, for example, in our practices of evangelism and mission. As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The problem of Christian mission is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

It is not merely a matter of political correctness at the congregational level either. The question of tolerance or respect may relate to our willingness to be open to the real people we meet in interfaith encounters, to engage in dialogue which goes beyond tolerance. As Swami Dayananda and Cardinal Ratzinger found, however, moving from tolerance to mutual respect is not without challenges.

(This is an excerpt from The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters?)