Historically, some segments of Christianity have resisted meaningful dialogue with those of other faiths and those who hold a different worldview.  Resistance is, in part, based on the observation that such dialogue has led some Christians to value appeasement over proclamation of the Gospel.   While this may be true, it is no reason to eschew discussion with post-modernity.  If the church is to live missionally, She cannot escape the necessity of our age to engage the culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We live in a dialogical age. We live in an age where homogeneity of thought is the exception rather than the rule. Diverse cultures, religions and worldviews are the stuff of which our countries and neighborhoods are made. We simply cannot change that. The choice is between letting the culture overshadow the message of the Cross of Christ or whether crafting a church that is willing to discover dialogical forms that can reach post-modernity with the gospel.  To effectively engage the post-modern mind, we must discern each person’s epistemology, observe their practice, and find a point of connection to the triune, personal, and good creator-God of the Bible.  The only way the church can live out our missional existence is to first develop a Kingdom worldview and then make sure our practice is in alignment with it. To achieve this goal, I offer seven conditions that make for healthy dialogue between Christians and those who do not share a Kingdom worldview.

Condition #1: Deal with the past, but don’t hold individuals responsible for it

Over the centuries, many wrongs have been done in the name, and against the name, of “religion.”  We can talk about these events, empathize with the hurts of others, and discuss the impact of the past on our present; but, we should not hold individuals who played no part these atrocities responsible for the misdeeds of the past.

Condition #2. Express agendas with honesty

There is nothing wrong with having an agenda.  Dialogue demands that we do not check our agendas at the door.  Anyone with a deeply held faith or tradition understands that agendas are part of who we are and what makes our faiths meaningful.  Hiding agendas, or pretending they are not important, is destructive to interfaith and trans-cultural dialogue. As a follower of YHWH, my agenda is to share the salvation hope that comes only through the death and resurrection power of the Messiah–Jesus.  This, for me, is the context for missional-dialogue.

Condition #3. Demonstrate love

Dialogue, especially for followers of Jesus, should be a demonstration of the Christian imperative to “love your neighbor.”  As a Christian, my dialogue must also be a demonstration of love for my God who first loved me.  Regardless of faith or tradition, loving speech is demonstrated when each person reveals weakness, risks self-exposure, and demonstrates empathy.

Condition #4. Treat people as unique individuals instead of preconceived categories

The study of religion, theology, and different faiths can be informative, but it can also be counterproductive.  Not everyone who calls himself “Mormon” will embrace the same theology as other Mormons.  Just because a woman calls herself a Pagan, does not mean she agrees with the actions of every self-professed Pagan.  In a post-modern culture, shared labels do not determine unity.  Christians are not one monolithic group of thinkers and cannot be held to account for the thoughts of other Christians. Healthy  dialogue values the individual above their “category” and allow each person to express their thoughts, ideas, and feelings with an open mind.

Condition #5. Contend in humility

As a Christian, I believe in truth.  I believe we can know truth.   And I believe the truth is found in the person of Jesus Christ who lived, died, and rose from the dead 2000 years ago.   However, knowing the Truth that is Jesus Christ, does not mean I have all the answers to every question of life. The key to healthy dialogue amongst people of different worldviews, then, is found in ones ability to contend for truth in a manner that demonstrates the limitations of our humanity.

Condition #6. Questions are the heart of dialogue

Questions are the friend of dialogue, but all too often people bristle at tough questions and become defensive.  In my experience, people are all too quick to impose judgement and impugn motive rather than address questions in a straightforward manner.  Healthy dialogue must embrace the use of exploratory questions as a tool for developing understanding.

Condition #7. The goal is not a new “civil religion”

It is the great irony of our post-modern age that we live in a pluralistic society that marginalizes anyone who does not conform.  Dialogue is often predicated on the pseudo-pluralistic condition that no one with firm convictions is taken seriously.  Any view which is perceived to disrupt the civility of discourse is summarily set aside as unworthy of consideration.  The erroneous goal for this kind of dialogue is the creation of a new civil religion acceptable to everyone; but in the end it alienates anyone with concrete religious values. We must not ask people with deep convictions to moderate their faith in order to be accepted into the dialogue.  Instead, the goal must be to allow each person to present their view with a sincere appreciation for the uniqueness that each one brings.

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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