Head to Head
The desire of Christians to convert others to
their way of life is, I would say, as fundamental as almost any other aspect of
their religion. Jesus is said to have told them to "Go out into the whole world
and announce the good news to everyone" (Mark 10.15 - though this and other
similar exhortations are not what Jesus said, but the teaching of early
The hero of the missionary movement is Paul of Tarsus. Some think that he was
in a real sense the founder of the Church - though we now know that his
missionary effort was only one small part of the rapid spread of Christianity
throughout the Roman Empire.
I am one of those who feel a deep sense of discomfort about "preaching Jesus
Christ" (whatever that may mean). I would like others to experience with me the
life which I lead in the footsteps of Jesus. And only then I will try to explain
what are the important things I think Jesus lived out and talked about.
And again, I do my best to lead a life which is congruent with that of Jesus.
I don�t know much about what he did. I know a little more about what he said. I
must admit that historical information about him is somewhat slight. So in the
final analysis, anyone who is interested in Jesus must be able to see him in me,
as it were. And they should be able to confirm the basis for my life through the
gospels. But it is primarily my interpretation of Jesus, my living out of a
Jesus-like way of life in the modern world, which should be compelling.
To put this another way: It is not so much what I say that matters, but what
I do. If, for example, Jesus lived a simple life as a poor man, then the way I
live should aim to do the same as far as possible. I may preach about Jesus
suffering on the cross with utter conviction, but if comfort and security are my
priorities, I'm like a blaring radio, full of nothingness.
Something in me draws back, for example, from trying to convince Muslims,
Buddhists, or Jews that my version of the world is inherently better than
theirs. I feel the same reluctance to persuade so-called "secular" people that
they should become religious. For I don�t have final answers to give. I have
only a way of life which is founded on that of a pioneering man who lived two
thousand years ago.
Rick: I was born and baptised into the Lutheran Church having
roots in the immigrant Swedish Lutheran tradition of the USA. That immigrant
church had a strong evangelic fervour. Yet, it was my experience that while the
clergy publicly admonished us to "make disciples of all nations", we in the pews
took a more passive stance. Maybe that is just being of Swedish origin.
I am not a "born-again" Christian. Since my childhood instruction there is a
steady unbroken line of faith to the present. I gave the usual child-like assent
to what I was taught. When I reached what I would call my "age of discernment" I
still found my faith to be valid and valuable to me. So it is to this day. How
unexciting you might say.
It has always been difficult for me to talk to others about my faith let
alone convince them to accept it. Undoubtedly this derives from the reticence I
observed in the old Swedes I sat with in the pews. I have always kept my faith
"close to the vest" as it were.
I am reminded of the story of the arrogant Pharisee and the humble tax
collector praying in the temple as recounted in Luke 18. Jesus said of them:
"For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself
will be exalted."
Though this passage does not directly bear on evangelism, it demonstrates how
an overt display of piety can be self-serving. Asking others to believe as I do,
smacks of the same hubris.
Yet, I am in a quandary. If I value my faith, as indeed I do, I must
recognize I am the recipient of the beneficence of others who evangelized me.
When one experiences something good, it is natural to tell others and to
share the goodness. My wife, who is a world-class cook, often presses me to
taste new things. I am grateful for her culinary evangelism as without it I
would have missed a whole world of exciting tastes. Her insistence can still be
Thus it is with proclaiming Jesus Christ. If one considers him compelling
there is an implicit impulse to share his story with others.
Mick, I subscribe to your low-keyed approach of teaching by example rather
than exhortation. Emulating the simple life of Jesus ought to be the thrust of
evangelism. Unfortunately, I have not lived such a life nor do I think I can. I
live without excess but still require creature comforts and pleasures. Is there
any hope for me?
Mick: We seem to share a laid-back approach to our subject, an
emphasis on the doing rather than the preaching. Perhaps one way to
differentiate would be to say that we're both mission-oriented but neither is
sold on evangelism. We want to give and share, but we don't want to hector and
However, I want to put to you a more far-reaching problem. When we as
Christians make contact with those of other faiths or of none, I suspect we tend
to operate with a sort of unconscious double standard which affects our
If we are "modest" Christians like you and I, we may go through the motions
of being open and understanding. But lurking underneath is (as you infer) a
hidden conviction that ours is the better vision. We have 20/20 vision while the
others see less clearly.
And yet at the very core of our faith is the conviction that Jesus died for
all, not just Christians. Jesus was a Jew. He was not supposed even to touch
certain kinds of people. We know for certain that he absolutely refused to be
bound by human barriers. Paul understood this clearly. Even the most basic
barriers (slave/free, male/female, Jew/Gentile) are broken down by the
pioneering life of Jesus.
I ask this: How is it possible to hold that all-embracing degree of
acceptance as the crown of our faith and then go on to pronounce that others
must become like us? Surely we are bound to accept them as they are first, and
then go on living our Christian lives?
Rick: Oh how I wish your simple approach of universal acceptance
could work and let all humankind live in peace and tranquility. My experience
tells me the world, at least in the present time, just doesn�t work like that.
We live in a perpetual moral dilemma. While we might want to live and let
live, others refuse to allow it. When a person or group of persons say you
should be killed because of your beliefs, the ideals of non-resistance and
acceptance seem na�ve and dangerous.
In these turbulent times we are forced to judge the rightness of our moral
convictions. We cannot avoid the hidden conviction we have a better
vision for humanity. How we handle that judgement is key. You and I would not
force it on others. But when some ideology actively threatens us, it is
necessary to resist lest we be swept away.
Mick: I think we have come to this point
before in our debates. To illustrate, let's take a look at the word "ideology".
It means something like "an integrated, systematic body of concepts about human
life and culture". It seems to me that those who say they are Christian
"believers" mean that they subscribe to an ideology.
The point I'm making is that Christianity is not an ideology. It has
developed into that over the millennia, but it is essentially a way of life.
True, any way of life derives in turn from a way of perceiving the world. But
that's the crazy thing about being Christian. The ideology is itself
anti-ideology. Christians have subscribed to that from the beginning. Paul made
it clear when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:
If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge �
but do not have love, I am nothing.
Love crowns everything for a Christian. We are bound to act lovingly towards
those whose actions derive from ideologies different from ours.
Our hidden conviction is that love conquers everything, that no ideology is
worth giving it up. We don't need to defend ourselves from those whose
constructs about the world differ from ours. The person whose God is money can't
force us to give our lives to it. The Muslim may force a form of words from our
lips, but our inner love can't be touched. We may be persuaded that the
Trinitarian formula is a word-game. But that does not necessarily affect our
It's on this basis that I say that when we follow in the pioneering steps of
Jesus, we are bound only to love. Converting others to forms of words or worship
Rick: The word ideology has taken on an unfortunate
pejorative connotation. I think there are good ideologies and bad ones. You are
advocating an ideology of love to which I subscribe. Our focus here
should not be on linguistics but on the means of mission. Ideology would
be a good topic for a future debate.
However, while you and I prefer a low-keyed approach to mission we must still
realize that the very fact of our non-verbal lives declares advocacy of our
beliefs. We cannot hide behind a coy shyness or reluctance to intrude on others
and say we do not stand for something.
I return to an earlier thought of what one should do if life is threatened by
another who disagrees with our beliefs. Should we allow ourselves to be
slaughtered without resistance? What if you were the last person on earth who
loved? What would be accomplished if you allowed yourself to be eliminated?
It is one thing to aggressively proselytize. That is not my style nor is it
yours. It is quite another matter to stand by in helpless passivity while the
world crashes about us.
Mick: I think I now see more clearly where we differ. Mission in
the usual sense means trying to change (convert) others to Christianity. You and
I agree that we don�t like to do that, that we prefer our lives to attract
others. We also agree that our faith is centrally important to us. We think it's
the best thing since sliced bread and we will not stand by passively while the
world crumbles. Jesus has brought something to our world which is critical to
its future well-being.
What I'm trying to say is that I cannot refuse exactly the same attachment
for a person of another religion or none. I don't want to discount his or her
conclusions about what's important, about the great questions of life. If there
is to be dialogue between us, I want it to be on the basis of total mutual
acceptance - not with the hidden agenda that my faith is better.
If I grant to another what I claim for myself, then mission in the
traditional sense is out.