A Muslim cleric and I were on a discussion panel a few years ago, describing the essence of our two religions to college students. The Muslim explained there is no god but God, and that asserting Christ's divinity is blasphemous. I explained that Jesus Christ's claim to be the unique God is the core of Christianity. But then a student stood and responded, "I don't see any difference between the two."

The cleric and I explained the differences again, but we could not convince the young man that if one of us was right the other must be wrong. Religious pluralism had taught the student he must never claim that one religion is superior to any other. Such claims are to be categorized quickly as intolerant and exclusionary.

Following the World Trade Center tragedy, unchurched New Yorkers began looking for churches that would address their pain and questions. Redeemer Presbyterian Church has been like flypaper, attracting and keeping those that would normally stay away from Christianity.

While skeptics and unbelievers have always been a significant part of Redeemer's congregation, now nearly 30 percent of our attendees are non-Christian. Many of them are steeped in religious pluralism and have little patience for claims of Christianity's superiority.

Maintaining my ministry to people of a pluralistic culture requires me to preach in a way that neither forsakes the truth of Christianity nor needlessly alienates those raised to assume a plurality of religions.

One of a kind

I don't directly make the naked claim "Christianity is a superior religion," and I certainly don't malign other faiths. Instead, I stress Christianity's distinctiveness.

My father's pastor recently provided a living example. My mother had suffered a stroke, and my father needed someone to lean on. His pastor sat with him for hours in the hospital, ministering not with profound answers, but simply with his presence.

In the same way, Christianity does not so much offer solutions to the problem of suffering, but rather provides the promise of a God who is completely present with us in suffering. Only Christians believe in a God who says, "Here I am alongside you. I have experienced the same suffering you have. I know what it is like." No other religion even begins to offer that assurance.

After the World Trade Center tragedy, between 600 and 800 new people began attending Redeemer. The sudden influx of people pressed the question, "What does your God have to offer me at a time like this?"

I preached, "Christianity is the only faith that tells you that God lost a child in an act of violent injustice. Christianity is the only religion that tells you, therefore, God suffered as you have suffered."

That's worded carefully as a way of saying, "Other religions tell you many good things, too. But Christianity is the only one that tells you this. If you deny this, then you lose a valuable spiritual resource."

Pluralists get stumped by that because they realize that they want the distinctives of Christianity—a God who has known human pain, salvation by grace, and the hope of heaven—in their times of need.

But then, this is New York. They know that when I consistently say, "Only Christi-anity tells you this," that I'm suggesting that it is greater than the other religions. Their defenses begin to rise. How dare you say your religion is superior to any other?

That's why on occasion I address directly the weakness of pluralism's foundations.

Preaching the whole elephant

About every other week, I confront popular pluralist notions, not with an entire sermon, but with a point here and there.

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Winter 2002: Preaching to the Times  | Posted
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