The late Walter Martin was a Christian apologist who specialized in ministry to people involved in alternative religions. I once heard him recount a conversation he'd had with a woman who assured him she had found the secret to dealing effectively with Jehovah's Witnesses. Martin asked her to explain.
"Well," she enthused, "when I see them coming, I shut the blinds and lock my door, and when they knock, I pretend I'm not home!"
Unfortunately, when it comes to relationships with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists, the church's instinct has often mirrored hers: If we pretend they don't exist, they'll just go away!
This massive planet has become a global village, and we keep bumping into adherents of other faiths—not just when we travel overseas but at the grocery store, the library, and the gym. We can no longer live as though other religions don't exist.
Many Christians hesitate to initiate conversations with Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus because they secretly fear they will become one of the loosey-goosey Christians who, after interfaith encounters, starts waxing eloquent about how all religions are one.
My experience has had the opposite effect. After speaking with Muslims, I come away with a deeper appreciation for how good the Good News of Jesus Christ is. In one recent interfaith meeting, for example, we discussed forgiveness. My Muslim friend said that forgiving from a position of weakness—a woman forgiving an abusing husband, a person of color forgiving a racist official—is cowardice. Only when you have won your freedom or are in a position of strength can you forgive, he argued.
Naturally, with our model being Jesus—who forgave when he was the most vulnerable and weak, while he hung on the cross—Christians have a different take. Only Jesus' type of forgiveness can heal personal and social wounds. Witness the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who both called for forgiveness before justice was done. Christian forgiveness is deeper and richer than a Muslim can imagine, and only a multi-faith conversation can make that clear to both parties.
In Viewpoints: After 25 years as a Christianity Today columnist, Charles Colson is teaming with Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George, a Christianity Today contributor and key theological adviser for nearly 18 years. During that time, George has collaborated with Colson on a variety of projects, including the Manhattan Declaration and Evangelicals and Catholics Together. George also chairs the board of Colson's worldview ministry, Breakpoint. (This story will be posted in the coming weeks.)
Next month: Mark Noll imagines the world without the King James Bible; Tim Stafford covers Christians fighting "Podo," one of the most preventable endemic diseases; and Leslie Leyland Fields debuts her column, Stones to Bread.
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Previous CT articles on evangelism and other religions include:
The Son and the Crescent | Bible translations that avoid the phrase "Son of God" are bearing dramatic fruit among Muslims. But that translation has some missionaries and scholars dismayed. (February 4, 2011)
Super Bowl Evangelism | Why Jesus did not say, "Market your neighbor as yourself." (February 3, 2011)
Putting Evangelism on Hold | Will the Global Faith Forum's "evangelistic model" of engaging Muslims and Jews catch on? (November 16, 2010)