In thinking about talking about our faith it is helpful if we broaden the discussion and think about what God has actually called us to be and do. He sends us out to be His representatives. Jesus is our example of what it means to be God’s representative. He came as a whole individual and lived among us (Jn. 1:14). Therefore, we are called to do more than just explain our faith to our colleagues, neighbors, and friends- we are also called to live out our faith as we do life together with them.
FRAMING OUR COMMISSION
In this light, in Matthew 28 Jesus frames our commission in the form of teaching- teaching others to observe all that He has commanded us (28:19-20). Though the teaching metaphor has an inherent limitation, signifying an imbalance of power in the relationship, I do not think Jesus used the metaphor to promote a power imbalance in our relationships. I think Jesus used it in the light of its positive implications.
The positive implications come out as we look at the different forms teaching can take. One form can be explanation. Another form can be example. One form can be asking the right questions. Another form can be directing people to the right source of information. Teaching can be inductive, deductive, or through appreciative inquiry. What is assumed across all the different types and forms of teaching is that an ongoing meaningful relationship exists between teachers and inquirers.
BUILDING SAFE RELATIONSHIPS
Therefore, the first step we should take as we seek to represent Jesus is to develop safe relationships with others. In the context of relational safety, open, honest, meaningful discussions can take place.
OUR LIVES SPEAK VOLUMES
The second step is to teach by example not only by explanation. Due to God’s Spirit being in us we actually want to live by God’s law of love (Ezek. 36:26-27); and the Spirit enables us to lead lives that reflect God’s character (2 Pe. 1:3-4). As a result, our transformed lives speak volumes to our friends. Our lives demonstrate the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Our awareness of our shortcomings should never diminish our confidence in this: since Jesus is always with and within us, the impact of our lives is greater than the sum of our actions. This is because He uses our imperfect, yet Spirit-empowered lives to speak to the hearts and minds of our friends.
CONTENT AND CONTEXT
When we bake a cake, we can use a prepackaged mix, or we can make one from scratch. Our choice may depend upon our knowhow and skills. This analogy helps us think how we can talk about our faith. Some people prefer using prepackaged ways of explaining our faith. Others prefer to let the Spirit use the circumstances of our lives to shape our discussions with our friends. Which approach we take depends upon our confidence level and on our ability to integrate our faith into our lives. If we are used to thinking about how the Scriptures shape our values and outlook, then we will feel at ease talking sensitively about why we do what we do from a biblical perspective. Yet, either approach is fine.
THINKING ABOUT REPRESENTING JESUS AMONG FRIENDS FROM OTHER FAITHS
So let’s get a bit specific. How would we approach talking about matters of faith with people from other faiths? To answer this question, let me focus on our friends who are Muslims.
The advice many books and tracts offer is to give a list of what Muslims believe in contrast to what Christians believe. The assumption in this approach is that all Christians have one set of beliefs and and all Muslims have one set of beliefs. Yet, this is a flawed assumption. If we were to stop and think about it, evangelical Christians have a distinct set of shared beliefs. However, when we broaden the discussion beyond the fundamental beliefs that we as evangelicals share we discover that we also have many different beliefs. This is why we have Baptists, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and so many more types of evangelicals. When we broaden the discussion out further and include all those who self-identify as “Christian” yet are not evangelical, we discover that these Christians have many differing beliefs. Some of these who self-identify as Christians do not even accept the “fundamental” beliefs which evangelicals accept.
Why is this important?
My experience has taught me that most Muslims do not approach their faith like evangelicals. They approach issues of faith similar to the way non-evangelical Christians approach issues of faith. So, there are those who base their beliefs completely on the sacred writings of Islam while there are others who only draw some of their beliefs from their sacred writings. And there are yet others who base little or nothing of what they believe on what is written in their sacred texts. This is why some Muslims are agnostic about many issues of faith, and some are even atheists.
Therefore, here are five guidelines to follow when thinking about discussing issues of faith. First, it is best not to assume that we know what any particular Muslim believes. It is better to ask each person what he or she believes. One idea for a conversation starter is to use news items. Since there are so many news items about things happening in the Muslim world, ask your friends what they think about these news items. Second, people’s cultural backgrounds often have more influence upon their thoughts, beliefs, and values than their sacred writings. Therefore, ask your Muslim friends to describe the cultural differences they have noticed between their cultures and yours. As you listen, you will discover beliefs and values that are really important to them. Third, it is often through a person’s heart that one impacts her/his mind. This is especially true of those who come from relationally oriented societies. Most, if not all, Muslim societies are relationally oriented. Therefore, avoid controversial topics. Fourth, affirm what is beautiful in their world and refrain from criticizing Islamic beliefs or practices. Criticism can create unnecessary barriers. Finally, please be confident in the inherent power and beauty of Spirit-led goodness and of the simple truths of the Gospel.
These same guidelines can be followed when we talk with friends who are from a Hindu background or a Buddhist background.
Hinduism: A Brief Look at the Theology, History, Scriptures, and Social System with Comments on the Gospel in India, H. L. Richard, Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2007.
Ishmael My Brother: A Christian Introduction to Islam, Anne Cooper and Elsie A. Maxwell, editors, Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2003.
Daughters of Islam: Building Bridges with Muslim Women, Miriam Adeney, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
My Mother’s Sons: Managing Sexuality in Islamic and Christian Communities, Patrick Krayer, Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013.
A New Introduction to Islam, Daniel Brown, Second Edition, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Encountering the World of Islam, Keith Swartley, editor, Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Media, 2005.