Thursday, 19 February 2009

Conversion and Pluraism

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again.

With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here.

It’s not often the BBC quotes scripture. Last week however, Mtt 28 featured prominently in its report of the Church of England’s general synod. The established church has been debating a proposal that it should make explicit its intention to seek the conversion of people to Christ.

I am not in a position to comment on the reporter’s opinion that the proposal was a covert attempt to arrest a “liberal drift”. The reaction in the media though does raise some interesting questions about evangelism in a society of many faiths.

Commentators have weighed in on both sides. “To fail to seek conversions is a denial of the gospel.” “Aggressive proselytising is disrespectful and runs the risk of destabilising inter-faith relations.”
I reckon both sides of the argument are right. And wrong.

The out and out evangelisers, the proclaimers, the converters need to think carefully about their understanding of evangelism. Yes, we should resist the notion that evangelism need be crass and insensitive. But we should also acknowledge that it can be, and often has been.

I recall with embarrassment the street preachers in Wakefield who so vigorously harangued passers by, launching bible verses like projectiles, that they were arrested for conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace. Jesus wept.

Seeking the conversion of others ought not to be controversial but it is truly a sensitive issue. It becomes particularly sensitive when we, the Christian majority, seek the conversion of a distinct, minority group who feel beleaguered, misrepresented and under suspicion. It is one thing to witness to Christ in our weakness, another thing entirely to do so from a position of power.

Yes, sharing Christ is in itself an act of love and compassion. How important then that we do all we can to make sure that the way in which we speak of him does not deny the very message we seek to convey.

On the other hand those who imagine that respecting others requires us to abandon all attempts to persuade them of the truth of our convictions are surely misguided. A commitment to social pluralism – the view that other faiths, cultures and world views have every right to share fully in society, indeed that they are welcome to do so - is not incompatible with seeking conversions.

Yes, dialogue is a vital dimension of Christ-like evangelism. Yes, true dialogue must include a readiness to listen and learn, recognition that we do not have a monopoly on truth. But no, persuasion is not a dirty word. It’s what happens in mature relationships, in adult conversations. The best forms of dialogue include, but go beyond, the mere gathering of information or the acquisition of insight. If truth counts for anything then all parties have to speak from a position of conviction and commitment and with an openness to conversion. There are many out there, the BBC included who would seek to impale us on the horns of false dilemmas. We must resist the pressure to choose between closed-minded, fundamentalist certainty and timid, liberal relativism.

To participate in God’s mission in today’s multi-faith Britain is to pray and to sweat till we see justice, peace and a welcome for all. It also to speak whenever we can, to do whatever we can and at all times to live in such a way as to persuade as many as we can to follow the one who is the source of existence, the key to life and the destiny of all creation. These callings are not and must never be allowed to become incompatible, indeed they are one.


Bob said...

Glen - agree with much of what you say, but I think 'we, the Christian majority' needs a bit of a challenge. I suspect the only way you can call Christians a 'majority' in the UK is by taking an improbably loose understanding of what a Christian might be. And if you're looking at evangelical (and evangelistic) Christianity, then we're certainly not a majority. Or do you mean something different here?

Glen Marshall said...

Two things.

Firstly, I am indeed using a loose definition and have in mind the still (relatively) high levels of nominalism and the extent to which Christendom left it's mark on British culture/society so that it still provides distant background music to much of life in this country.

Secondly, and more importantly, I have in mind the way things seem to members of other faiths.

The issue is one of power. When we speak as a majority (and, even when using a much tighter definition, Christianity is still the major religion of these islands) it significantly affects our relationship with any minorities with whom we speak and this must be taken into account as a matter of respect and good communication practice. We must be sensitive to the vulnerabilities of others and it matters not only what we say but also how we are heard.

Jon said...

I was on the top of a mountain in Haiti today and someone asked me if I knew who Jesus Christ was. I countered by mentioning that my father was a Baptist minister, so I felt that I had some vague idea. This, however, didn't put the young guy off.

Glen Marshall said...



Jon said...


Ya think?