16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20 (taken from the New International Version, ©2010)
These verses, typically referred to as the “Great Commission,” are some of the most central to the Christian faith. They represent the theological motivation for evangelism, straight from Jesus himself, and have compelled the church to share the love of Christ with the world. Yet they have also produced great controversy, both within the church and outside of it. How we as Christians evangelize shapes our identity and affects how we interact with culture and society.
Traditionally, evangelism has, at its most basic, meant telling others about Christ, entreating them to join the fold. Yet, in interfaith cooperation, this approach can sometimes come across as insensitive to others who also hold strong beliefs about the sacred. Building mutual respect is crucial for forming strong relationships with other religious (or non-religious) persons. Because the point of interfaith cooperation (especially in community service projects) is not to convert those with whom you work, there seems an obvious and possibly difficult tension here if we as Christians are compelled by our faith to share our beliefs, but prevented from doing so in order to maintain a level of respect for the beliefs of others.
Some may even see this as a strong reason NOT to become involved in interfaith cooperation—why exert the effort if you can’t expect to lead non-Christians to a belief in Christ? While I could give you many reasons (and Greg and I will do just that in our next series of posts) why Christians should be involved anyway, I will refrain and instead point to the issue underlying the belief that interfaith cooperation thwarts any hope for evangelism: the question of what such an evangelism should look like in an interfaith environment.
Though disputed by historians, legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi said this pithy statement regarding evangelism: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words.” It is believed that he also said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” Whether these statements actually came from St. Francis’s mouth does not diminish their meaning—actions speak louder than words, and we as Christians should be conscious of that fact as we strive to represent Christ to others. Showing love and compassion and a deep care for the world would speak far louder to someone of another faith than would an awkward conversation about doctrinal difference and the threat of hell for those who do not convert.
However, one must remember that interfaith cooperation depends upon mutual respect of religious or non-religious identities, meaning that evangelism as a facet of Christian identity must also be respected. Once strong relationships have been established, we as Christians can have opportunities to discuss with those of other beliefs the faith that motivates us and drives us. We share our stories and our tradition’s teachings; we learn from one another. Taken in this way, evangelism does not have to oppose interfaith cooperation. Instead, we simply must ask ourselves what evangelism should look like, and what it would look like to the non-Christian. Jesus tells us in the verses above to “[teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you”—what better way to do this than by example? If we back up our lofty moral ideals with action, then others will take notice, and the Christian community will rise to distinction as one that seeks to promote justice, peace, and love in a world in need of such qualities.