Sharing the Gospel in a Religiously Plural World: A Policy Statement on Evangelism
As Christians we are inheritors of a faith that seeks understanding of God, through the testimony about Jesus Christ that has been handed down to us in Scripture and history, and through a fresh articulation in response to God’s continuing revelation in the world. When true to the best of our faith, we live a life of humility, in respect and gratitude to the heritage of our forebears in the faith. While the good news we have heard is just as true and relevant today as it has ever been, we are also open to sailing into whatever unexplored seas our faith calls us, unafraid of where our journey may take us in the future. We are open to the challenging adventure of faith because we have experienced God’s assurance; we are ready to explore because we have a trustworthy guide. Our compass is God in Christ Jesus and we embark upon the journey encouraged and led by the freedom of the Spirit. It is with openness to God’s continuing revelation in Christ through the Spirit that we, the member communions of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), revisit and reaffirm our previous policy statements on evangelism, and seek to rearticulate our understanding of evangelism for this time.
Evangelism and Ecumenical History
Over the course of the past three and a half decades, a few key statements and sets of guidelines on the topic of evangelism were adopted by the NCC and the World Council of Churches (WCC)—often in conjunction with the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, as well as the World Evangelical Alliance. These documents, some of which are referenced in this text, form an important foundation for the continued reflection upon and grappling with, the meaning of evangelism in a world of diverse religions and cultures.
On March 3, 1976, the NCC Governing Board adopted a Policy Statement on Evangelism. The immediate context that shaped that statement was the pressing issue of the dichotomization of “personal evangelism” and “social action.” Given this concern, the immediate objective of the Policy Statement was to arrive at a position that overcomes the dichotomy as well as provides a “common ground” where churches outside of the NCC could meet in fellowship and joint purpose with those that are member communions.
Then, on November 12, 1994, the NCC issued a policy statement entitled “A Call to Dialogue and Action in Evangelism: Jesus Christ and God’s Reign.” Responding to an age of increased secularism, this statement underscored the central role of evangelism in the lived witness of all Christians and churches. “Evangelization begins with God’s invitation that we journey into a restored relationship with God, in all its fullness, through the Church.” It then went on to declare the inseparable relationship between evangelism and ecumenism.
On November 10, 1999, during its General Assembly the NCC adopted a Policy Statement on Interfaith Relations and the Churches that sets the tone, direction, policies, and projects of the NCC on the matter of interfaith relationships and the churches. Not only does the document recognize the reality of our religiously plural world, it calls members of the NCC to take account of their deep theological convictions in relation to neighbors of other faiths. At the level of programs and projects, it calls for the development of resources on interfaith relations to help NCC member communions grow in faith and practice in their relations with people of other faiths.
Most recently, on January 25-28, 2011, the WCC partnered with the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue and the World Evangelical Alliance in issuing “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” This document acknowledged the importance of mission, affirming that “Proclaiming the Word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian.” The principles it articulates specify norms for Christian conduct in giving witness to the gospel—the “good news” of Jesus Christ. These included the importance of respect toward persons of other faiths and suggested how to represent Christian identity and teachings in our multi-religious global context.
Evangelism in Today’s Interreligious Context
Three decades have passed since the Policy Statement on Evangelism (1976) and more than a decade since the Policy Statement on Interfaith Relations and the Churches (1999) were adopted. There are signs of progress in overcoming the dichotomy between evangelism and social witness and the polarization of churches. Many Evangelicals and Pentecostals are already at the forefront in the practice of holistic mission and ministry, and they have joined with ecumenical bodies in responding to some of the pressing global issues. While recognizing and celebrating this progress, we know that the work needs to continue.
Further reflection reveals the ongoing challenges posed by evangelism in today’s interreligious context. For example, one of the expressions of globalization is the migration of people and, with it, changing demographics and increasing encounters between people of various religious faiths. With more widespread interreligious engagement, critical issues have come into view. How believers of various religious faiths see their neighbors of other faiths in light of their deep religious convictions is critical to how they choose to relate with one another.
The Meaning of Evangelism
How, then, shall we proceed as Christians to live out and witness to our faith in Christ in this context? There is a general agreement among members of the NCC that we maintain a posture of openness, humility, and respect toward people of other faiths, but what can we say beyond this? What about our faith calls us to witness to what God in Christ has done in us and in the world? What is the good news of salvation that we are called to embody and share? How do we share our message with people of other faiths? To put it in classical theological language: What is evangelism and what manifestations may it take in view of our reflection on religious pluralism?
We can answer this question only after articulating the content of the gospel that we are called to embody and share. In a word, Christians believe that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16) and that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19). Christians believe that God’s self-disclosure in Christ Jesus is about the reconciliation of the world to God. This broken relationship with God is manifested in various forms of estrangement: from and against other human beings, self, and the rest of creation. Given this overall dilemma, God’s decisive saving act is directed to the whole person, the whole of humanity, and the whole of creation. According to Christian tradition, salvation is about right relationship with God, forgiveness of sin, and just ways of dwelling together—made available through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and reflective of the love that is at the heart of the triune God.
Evangelism is the Christian calling to witness to others the good news of God’s salvation we have experienced in Christ through the Spirit, and to invite people to share in this experience. Its goal is to witness to God’s glory; at the same time, we recognize that conversion, which calls for a person’s repentance from sin – from all aspects of life that are not conformed to God’s love – is in the hands of God. Sharing the gospel is as much a matter of deeds as it is of words. As a form of participation in the work of God, evangelism addresses the whole person, the whole of humanity, and the whole of creation. In doing so, it nourishes, strengthens, and supports a prophetic social witness for the sake of the violated, the downtrodden, and the threatened ecosystems of the world, and its constituent communities. Because the social challenges are immense, it is an ecumenical endeavor.
Christians are people who affirm our experience of God’s salvation. We have not necessarily arrived at our destination, but the door has been opened, and we have been invited to walk the way of salvation with Christ who said “Follow me” (Mt 4:19, Mk 1:17). We have formed communities of Christ’s disciples so we can help one another “walk the talk,” and “talk the walk.” We gather in fellowship and liturgical celebration for mutual edification and transformation. We know that Christian discipleship must lead to ecclesial mission. As recipients of God’s reconciling work in Christ, we know we have also been “entrusted” with the work of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19). We have a mandate—a mission—to share this saving message with others.
Evangelism and Mission
Mission is therefore the church’s reason for being: we are called to participate with God (missio Dei) in reconciling the world to God. This calling is not simply an invitation to preoccupy ourselves with church growth, but an expression of the excitement born of the transforming experience of Christ. As Christians we welcome others and build relationships, listen and learn from persons of other faiths, reach out to help, share the good news in love, and proclaim God’s prophetic “no” when life is violated and prophetic “yes” to help usher in the new tomorrow.
Mission provides the overarching framework out of which the various ministries of the church flow. This is true of evangelism and various forms of social witness and service. They are all expressions of one Gospel, one mission, and one witness. Evangelism and social action are not mutually exclusive but indivisible and complementary; they are both forms of witness. Christian commitment to mission demands that evangelism and social witness go together even as specific contexts shape the priority and the expressions of each.
Evangelism and Interfaith Relations
Christians relate to people of other faiths not simply on pragmatic grounds or for comparative purposes, but on the basis of our faith commitment: to participate with God in Christ through the Spirit in the continuing work of reconciling all of creation to God. In this light, faithful Christian discipleship means loving our neighbors, including our neighbors of other religions. God is at work in the world because the world is God’s world. No tribe or nation or religious community is outside of the domain of the God that Christians know through Christ Jesus. God is at work both in us and beyond the bounds of the Christian church. Indeed, the God we know through biblical witness works outside our religious communities and teaches and transforms us and expands our understanding of what God is doing in the world. Though often a challenge, Christians need to recognize the presence of the Spirit in the world around us, already at work before we open our hearts to others in giving and receiving the blessings, witness, insights, and gifts that come with cooperation, mutual listening, friendship, and radical hospitality.
Openness to people of other faiths and passionate commitment to sharing the good news of salvation are not mutually exclusive; they are not in contradiction. Perhaps this can best be explained in a paradox. As the 1989 World Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (San Antonio, Texas) puts it: “We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God.” Contrary to common understanding, paradoxical language is not a compromise or the last resort when human reasoning has reached a dead end. In the case of evangelism and interfaith relations, it holds in tension salvation in Christ and openness to God’s expansive presence in the world.
A statement from the WCC in 2005, “Religious Plurality and Christian Self- Understanding,” helps us better to understand this paradox: Thus we affirm that “salvation belongs to God, God only. We do not possess salvation; we participate in it. We do not offer salvation; we witness to it. We do not decide who would be saved; we leave it to the providence of God.”
Recognizing the limits of our knowledge of God’s ways and acknowledging the Church’s shortcomings in its engagement of people around the world, yet understanding that central to the unique incarnation of Jesus Christ is God’s expansive, inclusive, saving love, we live out the good news of salvation with bold humility. With gratitude for what we have experienced in faith, we submit our labors to God and pray for God’s countenance to shine upon us in our living and sharing of the gospel in this religiously plural world.