I remember the conversation well. I was sitting in a campus coffee shop with one of my student leaders. She was talking with me about a friend she was trying to reach out to. Clearly bothered, she finally asked, “Well, you see, my friend is Hindu. What could I say to help him understand who Jesus is? I don’t even know what Hindus believe!” I could only think of one answer for her: “Why don’t you ask him?”
This has become my standard answer to a question that I hear far too often: “I have a friend who is (fill in faith tradition). How can I be a witness to them? What do they even believe?” As an Islamic studies major, I’ve learned that studying a religion other than your own can very quickly paint you into a corner as “The Answer Man.” Too many times, I’ve had fellow Christians approach me with questions about other religions. Often it is because they have a friend from one of those faith communities and want to know how best to present the Gospel to him or her.
However, this approach is filled with pitfalls that can ultimately harm our witness, especially in such a religiously diverse society.
There is no silver bullet
The truth is that contextualization is important. I am glad that those asking these questions are interested in learning about their friends’ faith. However, I think it is tempting to approach these discussions with a “silver bullet” mentality. We look for that one argument—that one theological point that we think will “seal the deal” and be the final nudge that helps our friends “cross the line” into believing the Gospel.
What we forget is that we are talking to people, not hunting werewolves. There is no silver bullet in these discussions. Furthermore, the very act of looking for one dehumanizes the other person because it reduces them to a project, a complex religious algorithm that we can crack if we just knew the right code. Frequently, this shift in our thinking is unintentional, but the result is still the same: We have reduced a person to a religious archetype rather than interacting with and relating to a human being who is made in the image of God.
There is no textbook
This approach fails on another level as well. The reality is that the religion you read about in The Oxford History of Islam may be very different from the everyday, lived-out faith of your Muslim friend. People often articulate, understand and practice their faith traditions in ways that are far more diverse and multifaceted than can possibly be expressed in a textbook (or even a host of textbooks).
In my last post, I said that evangelicals should have a curiosity about and desire to grow in their understanding of other world religions. But we must not limit this education to the classroom. Formal education in other religious traditions can give us a framework for discussion and raise curiosity, but it often fails to paint an accurate picture of how that faith tradition is actually expressed by those who claim it as their own.
As such, when it comes to talking with people of other faith traditions, it is important to ask them what they believe and why. And then sit back and listen. Some of the highlights of my undergraduate education came not in the context of the classroom, but around the lunch table as I listened to and learned from my Muslim friends. As a result, I came to have a far deeper appreciation for the ways in which Islam is expressed around the world.
Furthermore, I think that this approach models Jesus’ own attitude when approaching the religious attitudes and expectations of people in his own day. In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is approached by a religious leader who asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now, Jesus could have sized this person up, concluded that he was a Jewish leader and launched into a discussion on the finer points of Torah. But he doesn’t do this. Rather, he responds by asking, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Jesus begins with this man’s own religious frame of reference and allows him to articulate his own understanding of his faith tradition. This becomes the launching point from which Jesus helps this man explore his own assumptions about God and about his own definition of “neighbor.”
While Jesus and this leader came from the same faith community, Jesus’ approach is helpful for us as we think about how to engage people from other faith backgrounds in conversation. It is not our place to tell them where they theologically land. Rather, we must allow them to share their own frame of reference with us; we must begin with humble questions and an eagerness to listen.
The joy of honest discussion
As a result, these kinds of conversations can also be a natural, relational and respectful bridge to Christian witness. One of my fondest memories is a conversation I had with a friend from my Arabic class. One evening we got together to quiz each other on vocabulary in preparation for our semester final. As we shared tricks and tips, I told him that one of the ways I remembered some of the words was by associating them with religious ideas or stories from the Bible. Within a matter of seconds, a huge grin spread across his face and he said, “Man, that is awesome! Why aren’t you a Muslim?!”
Before I knew it, we were talking about our faith traditions, asking each other questions and debating the finer points of theology. It was the nicest form of mutual evangelism that I have ever experienced, and we walked away feeling both challenged and understood.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. The rest of the year, we continued to meet to study and to talk. And each time, we looked forward to those discussions because we knew that we both respected and cared about one another.
Let’s ditch the silver bullets in favor of genuine interaction. In doing so, I think we begin to arrive at a model for interreligious discussion and evangelism that honors our neighbors from other faith backgrounds and allows us to live out our calling to serve as ambassadors for Christ.
Nick is currently enrolled full-time at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in the M.Div program. He is the proud father of two kids and happily married to his wife of four years, Jenny. He writes regularly on his blog, Prodigal Preacher.