Although often seen as being in
opposition, Christian mission and interreligious dialogue complement each
other. Linking them requires moving beyond two stereotypes: First, that mission
is a we-they activity; that is, mission involves Christians ministering to the foreigner
and the strange culture, the other religion, the needy, and so forth. The
second understands dialogue as an encounter that involves comparing differing
views about the divine, usually with a stated openness to changing one’s own
the complexity of Christian mission today can relieve us of the first
stereotype. Besides traditional activities of service and preaching, Christian
mission includes accompaniment, incarnational presence, working with the poor, and
being ministered to by those a missionary serves. Even when Christians disagree
about forms of mission, they can honor others’ ways and learn from them. My
recent book, Graceful
Evangelism, outlines seven
forms of Christian mission and shows differences and overlapping motifs among
mission is more like giving and receiving gifts than a one-way outreach to others.
In Christianity Encountering World
Religions, Terry Muck and I
describe gift giving and receiving practices in different parts of the world.2
Cultures exhibit different ways of understanding gifts and therefore their
giving and receiving practices also vary. We emphasize that Christian mission
is a two-way street—receiving gifts from others and offering the priceless gift
of salvation through Jesus Christ. “Giftive mission” thus becomes a metaphor
for contemporary Christian mission.
engagement also mirrors the giving and receiving of Christian mission. It
offers multifaceted ways of being with people of another religion. Formal interreligious
dialogue about beliefs by proponents of different religions represents only one form of dialogue. It is an important forum
that engenders deeper understanding of both theological nuances of different religions
and varying beliefs within denominations and sects of a particular religion.
Increasingly this form of dialogue seeks an honest encounter with others whose
convictions are held as deeply as one’s own. Participants need not be open to
changing their religion but must be clear about their own beliefs and open to listening
and respecting the beliefs of others.
Moving away from those two stereotypes
reveals many forms of engagement with persons and communities of religious
difference. Some focus on theological conversation, some on project building, some
on civic action, and some on friendship. One of the best ways to engage people
of another religion is through friendship. It offers a kaleidoscope of
experiences that expands understanding and fosters mutual respect. Friendship
offers experiences of another religion that one cannot gain through academic
study. It offers opportunity to witness to the gospel, to be Christ’s hands and
feet for others. And it offers the chance to receive.
When I taught at Jakarta Theological
Seminary in Indonesia, in the early 1990s, I chose to live in a Muslim
neighborhood instead of on campus. Within a few days I had been introduced to
the family next door. A mother and her twelve-year-old daughter appeared at my door
with a sumptuous meal. “I see that you are living alone,” the woman said. “You
have no mother here. I will be your mother.” Faithful to her word, Masooma
turned up at my door at least once a week with a meal for me. She frequently
invited me over for milk-tea in the afternoon. Sometimes I would sit nearby
while she instructed a group of youngsters in reading the Qur’an in Arabic. I
also got to know Masooma’s husband and daughters, aged twelve and seven.
After a few months, our appearance in
the other’s house seemed natural. We spoke of our religions—how they
overlapped, how they differed. One day Masooma scolded me for leaving my bible
on the floor next to my low bed. “It is wrong to put the sacred book on the ground,”
she admonished. I asked about the mosque and the fast during Ramadan. She
requested the Christmas cards I received after the holidays. Masooma and her
husband taught at the Pakistani International School in Jakarta. I taught at
the Christian Seminary. Yet we found time in our busy schedules for friendship.
The girls especially liked sitting on my
front stoop playing with my kitten, Bib. The Muslim idea of a pet’s “place” is
outside. Masooma appreciated the wonder her children felt while playing with
Bib, but she would never have a cat in her home. The kitten’s playful companionship
was a gift that I could give. I too received gifts of hospitality—learning
about their family life through visiting, observing religious practices, and
Another way to do interreligious
engagement is through teaching and learning. Courses on mission, world
religions, and social ethics provide opportunities for interreligious dialogue
in the classroom while preparing students to encounter those of other religions
in their daily life. The classroom context provides a forum for questioning
one’s beliefs as well as learning from the beliefs and practices of others. In
a course on world religions at Trinity College in Singapore in 2002, a student
from a Hindu background became concerned about the foundations of her Christian
faith. Was she a Christian because her mother believed in Christ and because
she was alienated from her Hindu father? Her final paper, comparing Hinduism
and Christianity, helped this student to better understand why she believed in
Christ and how Hinduism provided religious meaning for her father.
Journal, published by Asbury Theological
Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, devoted an issue to teaching and learning practices
that can be helpful to Christians teaching in an interreligious context.3
In that issue, professors shared the most meaningful practices that shaped
their own teaching. Those salient experiences can provide tools to a teacher who
is learning about other religions and respectfully engage students of other
religions in one’s classes.
Travel offers another venue for
linking mission and interreligious dialogue. As my husband and I hiked the Anna
Purna Trail in Nepal in 2002, we met Westerners taking up the challenge of
trekking and seeking knowledge of nature. Our Hindu guide Rishi had questions about
Christianity. He shared with us his own Hindu practices and beliefs. We even
met a Tibetan Lama who told us miraculous tales of sustenance on the trail
given by his prayers and the prayer beads he offered to others.
New ways of practicing Christian
mission and interreligious dialogue make this an exciting time to do both.
Formal interreligious dialogue presents opportunities for deepening theological
understandings of different religions. “Giftive” mission and informal theological
conversations can expand interreligious engagement. Experiences of
interreligious engagement through building friendships, teaching and learning
in the classroom, and travel have enriched my own life as a scholar and a
1Frances S. Adeney,
Graceful Evangelism: Christian
Witness in a Complex World (Grand Rapids:
Baker Academic, 2010).
2Terry C. Muck and
Frances S. Adeney, Christianity
Encountering World Religions: The Practice of Mission in the Twenty-First
Century (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
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Frances S. Adeney is the William A. Benfield Jr. Professor of Evangelism and Global Mission Emerita at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.