Overreaching Our “Outreach:” Rethinking Evangelism in Interfaith Cooperation (Part I)

We had sung some songs, played a silly game, watched an edgy, well-edited video montage peppered with pop-culture images and distressed teens. The speaker told a few jokes and threw in an anecdote about a time in his childhood when he had done something really embarrassing. He came across as charming and easy to identify with. As he discussed Scripture, one could see his passion for the message; he stressed—emphasized repeatedly— God’s deep love for creation. In fact, he said that God’s love was so immense that he sent his only Son to die for our sins.

And then he asked for us to bow our heads in prayer. He had the band come back to the stage, and right on cue came a few arpeggiated chords from an acoustic guitar, joined by a soft synth pad. One moment later came the melodic electric guitar, dripping in reverb and ping-pong delay. “Now I know that for some of you tonight, God is calling you to his presence. He’s asking you to [insert reference to anecdote/Bible story] and follow him…”

But you know the rest. If you have grown up in the church, there is almost no way you would have avoided this kind of situation (or one quite similar), the likes of which permeated my own adolescent church life. We were encouraged to bring friends to these events—often billed as “outreach” events— with the idea that by getting them in the seat, we could somehow get them to commit their life to Christ.

Greg and I have elsewhere referred to this common kind of evangelism as the “homework model,” and must admit that we don’t necessarily agree with it. In this version of evangelism, you are given an assignment—in this case, to tell an un-churched friend about Christ— and you fulfill your task either by sharing your faith with said person or bringing them along to your outreach event next week.

The emotional experiences described above are not inherently wrong—I’ve had my share of meaningful moments at church retreats and the like—but that they aren’t always appropriate. When dealing with others of strong conviction (whether religious or not) we must act and approach things differently.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Great Commission poses an interesting issue with interfaith work; it asks us to examine how we represent Christ to the world, and doesn’t mean that evangelism stands in opposition to interfaith cooperation.

For me, the problem with the “homework” model of outreach evangelism lies in its assumptions. It presupposes a rather weighty purchase on the valuation of the sacred that says you possess the only real truth in the world, and, for others to get it, they must come to you. This automatically puts the other person at a kind of disadvantage. Regardless of whether we as Christians do in fact have all the answers is irrelevant—the point here is not that we hold the truth, but that it is disrespectful by proffering it in this way.

So how do we as Christians interested in interfaith cooperation rethink this model? What would it look like if we taught young Christians how to emulate Christ in the world through service and compassion instead of charging them with a requirement to bring a friend in order to be affirmed as a good Christian next week? Check back for Part II, where I’ll explore this topic further.

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