American Christians wonder, indeed should wonder, why Christianity is in decline in our nation. Why are people leaving the church? Why are so few people coming to Christ? Why are non-Christian religions growing? I want to suggest that is because we Christians have failed to meet the essential pre-condition for preaching a credible gospel.
We live in a time when the front page news of America tells us of burning the Qur’an, attacks on mosques and synagogues, violence against Muslims and Sikhs, and attacks on immigrants and their cultures. What isn’t front page news, what is also virtually absent from Christian churches and their concerns, is any effort to create inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding. As a friend put it, “inter-religious dialogue is a minor concern of a tiny minority of Christians.”
In my experience he is right. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists show far more interest in initiating inter-religious dialogue than do Christians. In the Dallas area it is city governments, not Christians, who now inaugurate inter-religious meetings of faith leaders. (Yes I know there are a few Christian leaders in Dallas interested in dialogue. But as a percentage of Christian churches? miniscule.) We Christians have become reluctant followers instead of forthright leaders in one of the most pressing issues of our civic life.
But if dialogue is a minor concern of a minority of Christians it is actually a major concern for a lot of Americans. They are not, and probably cannot, retreat into mono-cultural Christian ghettos. Their work, their school, their political lives bring daily encounters with diversity and pluralism. Any Jesus who can make a legitimate claim to be their Ruler, their Christ, will need to address that reality with something other than condemnation or neglect. Any community that claims to be led by the Ruler of the universe will need to show its engagement with the reality or religious and cultural pluralism.
That is why our evangelistic efforts are effective only in so far as they steal sheep or recapture cultural Christians.
Instead of living in the real world of religious and cultural diversity most Christians take refuge from the reality of pluralism in their increasingly self-sufficient congregations . Our Jesus is Lord of our lives, maybe of our church, but doesn’t appear to know or care about the complex religiously plural world in outside the church doors. To the extent that our Jesus emerges in public he cares only about the politics of human sexuality, economic ideology, and charity.
We need to think again about the gospel message, a message in which Jesus never shirks from the complex problems of the world in which he lives.
We haven’t done badly as Christians demonstrating the nearness of God’s reign in feeding the poor, healing the sick, housing the homeless and even liberating the captives. These signs of the presence of God’s reign aren’t far from our congregational witness. As for peace and justice, well we do honor them with at least our lips, if not much in the way of political engagement. And at one time that might have been enough to make the gospel we proclaim credible.
What we forget is that God’s reign is also characterized in both the New and the Old Testaments as a time when the nations of the earth in all their diversity will come together, bringing their varied gifts to God. If Christians are not making a credible effort to seek out the unity among the diverse cultures and religions of the world then we are undermining our witness to God’s reign and Jesus as the Ruler of that Reign every bit as much as if we fail to feed the poor, release the captives, and heal the sick.
Conversely inter-cultural and inter-religious conflict is a sign that God’s reign is neither near nor coming closer. If these are found within the church, or are instigated by the church, then you can be certain Christ, the ruler of God’s reign, isn’t being made manifest in any credible way.
And that is why we need dialogue. It isn’t the occasion to evangelize, it is the precondition for presenting a credible gospel in today’s world.
We do not need to evangelize through dialogue any more than we need to issue an altar call to every visitor to a food pantry or hand out tracts in a Christian hospital. And conversely, if the gospel is to be credible in our contemporary pluralistic society then inter-religious dialogue is just as important a part of Christian life as feeding the hungry and healing the sick.
If Christians want to present a credible witness to Christ in contemporary America they should start by inviting their non-Christian neighbors into dialogue. Without establishing a desire for understanding and peace among religions the message of Jesus Christ will remain unbelievable, as it is justifiably not believed by a growing majority of Americans.