How should Christians talk to members of world religions?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Travis Kerns joined the Boyce College faculty in 2007 as assistant professor of Christian world- view and apologetics. Since 2009, Kerns has led a group of students to Utah to engage in evangelizing Mormons. And, starting in May 1, 2013, he became the SEND: North America city coordinator for the Salt Lake City, Utah region.
Unfortunately, Christians occasionally treat members of other religions of the world as inferior to them, and may even take the opportunity to be a “jerk for Jesus.” This is not only unfortunate, but unbiblical. As we see in 1 Peter 3:15, the Holy Spirit, through Peter’s pen, commands followers of Jesus to be gentle and respectful when interact- ing with unbelievers about the gospel. Telling the non-Christian the gospel is confrontational in itself; the Christian need not make it more so.
Former dean of Harvard Divinity School, Krister Stendahl, when he spoke to a gathered media press conference in 1985, gave three “rules of religious understanding ” for understanding other religious groups, and they can be instructive for our purposes.
Stendahl’s first rule is that Christians should learn about the beliefs of another religion from members of that religion. We would expect this from others as well. This is not to say there is no place for books, articles or explanations about religions by non-members. This first rule is simply that the most accurate understanding of a particular religion and its belief system is likely to come from a member of that religion.
Stendahl’s second rule is that we should make fair comparisons. By this, Stendahl simply means that we should compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Don’t read a work about Jesus by a Christian with a Ph.D. and compare it to a work about Jesus by a Muslim layman. Likewise, don’t compare the Christianity of David Koresh or Jim Jones to the Hinduism of Mahatma Gandhi, and don’t compare the Islam of terrorists to the Christianity of Mother Teresa.
Stendahl’s third rule is that we should leave room for “holy envy.” Here, the Christian does not need to agree with the other religion or with the member of the other religion, but he can recognize that the Buddhist may pray more intently, the Hindu may believe more strongly, the Mormon may give more liberally or the Jew may love more fully than the Christian. The devotion of members of other religions should drive Christians to be even more serious about their deeply held convictions.
So, how can we most effectively evangelize world religions? First, we pray. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 commands us to pray continually and that should include prayers for opportunity to speak with members of other religions, boldness when confronting false belief and compassion over the lost condition of those involved in other religions.
Second, we study. 1 Peter 3:15 commands us to be ready to give a defense for our hope in Christ whenever we are asked. The best way to defend the hope we have is to know what others believe and to be ready to ask them difficult questions as we present Christ to them.
Third, we go. Matthew 28:18-20 commands us to go into all the world, proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. May God grant us the courage, the boldness, the compassion, the ability and the burden to propagate the gospel to members of the world’s religions. — Travis Kerns
Dr. Kerns wrote further on this subject in the latest guidebook from SBTS Press: A Guide to Evangelism. The Guidebook is available in print and also free PDF download at press.sbts.edu