Being an effective multi-cultural church

Series bridge: Having looked at the positive and God-ordained multi-cultural dimension of the human race, it is important to face the challenges. We looked at the issue of language in all its richness and yet difficulties in terms of communication. We also looked at culture itself and what it means to try to live and function together in a local multi-cultural church. Another challenging issue is that across the world historically speaking cultures have their own religious and philosophical beliefs. How does the Christian faith match up and engage with the beliefs of those who now live in our local communities?

Understanding other faiths – bridges and road blocks
In days gone by, “World Religions” was a school R.E. topic or an interesting read in your illustrated encyclopaedia. Remote and distant, the theological questions that other religions raised were good for specialist Bible study groups to theorise over, but not of much practical use. Now they are on our doorstep; they are our neighbours and friends at work. The challenge to our own faith is deeper and more real. Why has God allowed other faiths to develop and persist? Are they not all completely wrong? How do we handle truth that is clearly taught in many of them? And in our British tolerant multi-cultural public space, how do we convey our belief in the uniqueness of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ in a way that does not sound like “we’re right and you’re all wrong!”

Exploring origins
a) Lost in the mists of time: A reflection on the origins of religious beliefs, based on the divine creation of the “in the image of God” human race, would imply that from the beginning all humans had a knowledge of God. Genesis 1–2 says so, and the way humanity is held accountable before God (Genesis 3, Romans 1) indicates that all have some knowledge of God. The passage of time, imperfect transmission of truth (Genesis 3:3) and human incompetence, let alone human rebellion, has distorted that knowledge. Yet periodically through the Old Testament we come across characters who clearly knew the true God, and were known by Him, such as Melchizadek and Jethro. All truth is God’s truth1, and in many if not all religions today, there remains reflections of the character, nature and purposes of God which are worth recognising and in fact crucial to acknowledge. Yet all religions are fallen and therefore imperfect carriers of truth.

b) Deliberate twists: With or without Satan’s help, as fallen humanity we are past masters at creating gods in our own image or just deifying ourselves. There is also the direct interventions of the Kingdom of Darkness in terms of Satan and evil spirits (1 Timothy 4:1–2 “doctrines of demons”), and we note that the “god of this world has blinded their eyes” (2 Corinthians 4:4). In the Old Testament the Baal religion evidences an accumulation of twists that reached a point of evil and unspeakable practices that required strict separation from by God’s people and at times direct divine judgement.

c) Remnants of glory: Despite all the confusion, truth mingled in with mythology and overt wrongness, “God has not left himself without witness” (Acts 14:15–17), by which Paul explained that, even in a polytheistic religious context, God was at work revealing something of His truth to all peoples. Paul expands on this as he addresses the Athenians in a more philosophical context (tolerantly mingled with polytheism, agnosticism and atheism), as he talks about the God who will be found by those who search even as if they are just feeling around in the dark (Acts 17).

The acceptance of truth when found in other religions does not diminish in any way the strength of Christ’s direct commendation to us to disciple all nations to be true followers of Jesus Christ, for God wants all people everywhere to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). However, it may help us to be more positive towards the genuinely held religious beliefs of others, and to seek to move them forward in faith towards God through Christ, rather than taking a combative stance, despising other religions or portraying an arrogance with a sense of the superiority of our faith over all others. It may be worth a moment’s reflection on the fact that your very birth place and life context, over which you had absolutely no control, dictates, from a human angle, what religion the average human is born into, will live by and potentially die in. Thank God that His grace has always reached beyond the boundaries of his own peoples’ circles and perceptions.

Some ways forward
Key Bible stories to study and engage with include Jesus’ interactions with non-Jews (Luke 7:1-10; Matthew 15:21-28; John 4:1-26), Paul’s engagement with Greeks and Asians (Acts 14 and 17 in particular), but also Old Testament classics like Elijah and Namaan (2 Kings 5:1-19), Jonah and the pagan sailors (Jonah 1:4-16), Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 1,2 & 4). Connections and common ground are the entry points, needing to be balanced with identifying error and communicating truth.

1. Bridges include:

  • The belief and knowledge of one God found among de-churched people, believing Jews and Muslims.
  • Concern for humanity and practical compassion ministries which provide opportunities to work together, building relationships through serving in common justice causes.
  • Engagement in acts of community cohesion to deal with religious discrimination, acts of terrorism or disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire.
  • Teaching and practising aspects of public morality, defending the value of marriage and family life also provide opportunities to explore agreement and give mutual support, leading to conversation on other dimensions of our faith.

2. Road blocks include:

  • Historical events associated with Christendom – we need to increase our sensitivity to those matters which still cause people of other religions to misunderstand or fail to listen to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
  • Church buildings – in the same way that we may hesitate to enter a Mosque or Hindu temple, those of other faiths may be very fearful of entering into our religious buildings. Our homes are far more welcoming spaces in which to invite them, as neighbours and friends. The use of other neutral venues can prove valuable too, though the presence of alcohol, non-kosher/halal foods or meat may present its challenges.
  • Crucial doctrinal matters – the sonship of Jesus Christ, his uniqueness as the source of human salvation, are matters that cannot be avoided. Yet they are not what Paul led on in his early conversations with the Asians and Athenians. Sometimes in our hurry to “get the Gospel over”, we prematurely raise the road blocks, rather than keeping going along the bridges, trusting that the Holy Spirit will prepare hearts, so that when the harder issues are raised there is an openness to listen.

And the best place to start for most of us is listening and learning ourselves. Taking the time to develop meaningful personal relationships with people of other faiths, learning what they believe from their own testimony, is not the way most of us started out in our study of world religions. However, now we have in our local communities different religious adherents at hand to explain. And in the very act of learning, we may be given, like Paul, the opportunities to share how Christ has impacted our lives, not by birth or culture, but through Holy Spirit transformation in encounters with the risen Lord Jesus.

1Augustine wrote in his On Christian Doctrine (II.18), “Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…”

How far will you go to save some?
We recognise that food is a key part of relationship building, yet food from ancient times is a barrier to fellowship and evangelism. Paul in this context went as far as to say that if it causes problems “I will never eat meat again!” (1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14). Serving food today in public spaces requires the provision of vegetarian and vegan options with due concern for allergies. Depending on the makeup of your local community, surely it should also include Kosher and Halal options, or even taking ham sandwiches and bacon rolls permanently off the menu? Does it not make biblical sense?

Three helpful books

  • “God’s Rivals – Why has God allowed different religions? Insights from the Bible and the Early Church” by Gerald R McDermott, 2007, IVP Academic;
  • “Connecting Christ – How to discuss Jesus in a world of diverse paths” by Paul Louis Metzger, 2012, Thomas Nelson;
  • “Distinctly Welcoming – Christian presence in a multi-faith society” by Richard Sudworth, 2007, Scripture Union.

Home work
Research the main religious faiths actively followed in your community. Visit their places of meeting, build relationships, ask what they believe and learn from them how they express their beliefs. What are the specific bridges open to you or ones you can construct together? Identify and think through the road blocks as they emerge.

Mark Davies and his wife Shirley served as missionaries in Zambia for 20 years engaging in Bible teaching and church/community development projects. From 2003 Mark worked at Tilsley College, Scotland, recently leaving his role as Principal to continue serving with GLO Europe as the Training Director and Coordinator of a national training network. Mark and Shirley are now based in London at Highgate International Church.

Foundations Autumn 2017