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Pope Francis, celebrating the World Mission Sunday on Sunday, 20 October, remarked that the mission of the church is “to spread throughout the world the flame of faith that Jesus has lighted in the world … The method of the Christian mission is not proselytism, but that the sharing of the flame that heats up the soul.”1 And blessed Pope John Paul II affirmed that missionary activity “belongs to the very nature of the Christian life, and is also the inspiration behind ecumenism: ‘that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17:21).”2 Emil Brunner in 1931 noted that “the Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.”3

The church's universal mission is thus found in the faith of Jesus Christ, who is the definitive self-revelation of God. Christians go out on mission with the conviction that they are “saved to save,” “reconciled in order to reconcile.” The church ought to make known to all people in all walks of life that Jesus Christ is the Saviour, true God and true man. Nevertheless, the church, while being faithful to her entrusted mission, needs to fight against two temptations. The first is the “mere humanization” of Christian mission, through abandoning missionary proclamation, conversion, and evangelism in favour of dialogue and social justice. The second involves triumphalism and exclusivism, which tend to deny or ignore the presence of the Logos and the Holy Spirit in all cultures and God's relationship with all peoples throughout the ages.

Accordingly, the awesome responsibility of the Great Commission – Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19-10) – cannot be divorced from the “great commandment” of love of God and neighbour (Matt. 22:34-40). If “evangelism as the invitation for authentic discipleship is at the heart of missio Dei,”4 then all Christians, as disciples of Jesus Christ, are called upon to be agents and co-operators in God's outreach to all of humanity. The missio ecclesiae, the mission of the church, thus, ought to be grounded on the trinitarian life as a communion-in-mission. Divisions and hostilities among Christians not only set a counter-witness, but also weaken “the promotion of the healing and reconciling message of the Gospel”5 as well as ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.

In my short input, I would like to address the following three issues: first, the conflicting understanding of Christian evangelism, conversion, and proselytism; second, the conversion debate and religious liberty; and third, the document “Christian Witness in a Multi-religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.”

Conflicting understanding of Christian evangelism, conversion and proselytism

  1. Top of page
  2. Conflicting understanding of Christian evangelism, conversion and proselytism
  3. The conversion debate and religious freedom
  4. Christian witness in a multi-religious world: Recommendations for conduct
  5. Implementation of the Recommendations
  6. Conclusion
  7. Biography

Three sets of empirical population data contribute to the increase and the decrease in world religions: (i) births and deaths; (ii) converts to and converts from; and (iii) immigrants and emigrants. It is a social phenomenon that Christianity is shifting to the global South with the changing demographics of Christians. “Christianity is expected to grow as a proportion of Africa's population, from 143 million in 1970 (38.7% of the continent's population), to 630 million by 2020 (49.3%). In Asia, Christianity is growing more than twice as fast as the general population, mostly through conversions, though it is still a minority religion there (only 8.2% in 2010).”6

The growth of Christianity shows the obedience of the disciples of Christ to the Great Commission. Yet the spread of Christianity in the southern hemisphere raises potential political difficulties, and on occasion leads to violence. Proselytism can be defined as an illicit form of evangelism or an unethical activity.7 Evangelism of some Christians includes also the members of the Catholic as well as other churches. These groups will squabble and feud with one another, often politely but sometimes polemically – and at times violently. Christians fighting among themselves to convert baptized Christians and others pose a serious missiological and ecumenical problem.

This dispute erupts due to conflicting understanding of Christian conversion, which is shaped by one's view of evangelism. All have the legitimate right to present the gospel. Yet, the attempts at “sheep stealing” or winning members by dishonest means lead to negative proselytism. Some Christians justify their attempts to evangelize the “nominal Christians” thusly: “Even though they have been baptized, they are only Christians in name so they need to be won back to the Saviour.” The lack of consensus on evangelism and conversion often leads to dismissive charges and counter-charges (sects, unbelievers, proselytism). “The disunity of Christians always ‘scandalizes the world, and damages the most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature’ (Decree on Ecumenism, 1).”8 Moreover, proselytism hinders the common witness and further widens Christian disunity. This situation requires the disciples of Jesus to seek mutual conversion before converting others.

The conversion debate and religious freedom

  1. Top of page
  2. Conflicting understanding of Christian evangelism, conversion and proselytism
  3. The conversion debate and religious freedom
  4. Christian witness in a multi-religious world: Recommendations for conduct
  5. Implementation of the Recommendations
  6. Conclusion
  7. Biography

The confusion of equating the terms “proselytism” and “evangelism” with aggressive and insensitive missionary approach has had an impact on inter-religious dialogue and civil society. The aggressive missionary zeal of some Christians has given birth to conflicts and tensions not only among Christians but also with other religions. (Islam is also accused of aggressive missionary zeal, and Hindu fundamentalists of India seek to re-convert India to an entirely Hindu state.) Thus, other religions often accuse Christians of “unethical conversions” or “forced conversions,” and vice versa. Traditional Christian churches point their finger at some new Christian groups as the culprits. Moreover, many new Christian groups – including Catholic and mainline churches in some countries – are fighting for religious freedom and accuse followers of other religions of persecuting them. Increasing religious fundamentalism adds further fuel to the fire by threatening not only the peace and the stability of the world but laboriously built inter-religious dialogue. Some states have attempted or have already passed “anti-conversion” laws, prohibiting or greatly restricting any kind of Christian evangelism.

The conversion debate has also sparked a human rights debate. While foreign religions demand freedom to propagating their message, the native religions seek to ensure the right of liberty conscience, desiring to be left alone. This has led to a chain of conflicts:

  • i) 
    a theological and missionary war – defaming and demonizing rival Christian groups at the cost of the ecumenical spirit of the previous decades;
  • ii) 
    inter-religious distrust and conflicts – ruining the inter-religious dialogue painstakingly constructed in recent decades;
  • iii) 
    a legal battle – with local political leaders often intervening in favour of local religion(s) thus politicizing the conversion debate;
  • iv) 
    global rights talk – in which human rights organizations and some Western governments intervene in the need for religious freedom.

Religious freedom worldwide is at increasing risk today. It ought to be mentioned here that Christians are currently the most persecuted religious group. A 2011 Pew Forum study found that Christians are harassed in 130 countries, more than any of the world's other religions. Freedom of religion is a fundamental, inviolable, and non-negotiable right of humans. Moreover, everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith. Yet, the right to share one's religious beliefs should not violate other's rights and religious sensibilities. This situation requires a “code of conduct” on Christian witness.

Christian witness in a multi-religious world: Recommendations for conduct

  1. Top of page
  2. Conflicting understanding of Christian evangelism, conversion and proselytism
  3. The conversion debate and religious freedom
  4. Christian witness in a multi-religious world: Recommendations for conduct
  5. Implementation of the Recommendations
  6. Conclusion
  7. Biography

The worldwide increase of religiously inspired conflicts and intra-Christian proselytization continues to sour ecumenical as well as inter-religious unity. The document “Christian Witness in a multi-religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” is the fruit of a five-year period of consultations, compromises, and consensus.

The first consultation, entitled “Conversion, Assessing the Reality,” was held in Lariano, Italy, in 2006, with the representatives of different religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Yoruba religion)9 and the PCID and the WCC-IRDC. The consultation on the theme “conversion” was timely and urgent at that time, as the Report from the Interreligious Consultation onConversion – Assessing the Reality rightly notes: it is “an issue which is often the cause of misunderstanding and tension among communities in many parts of the world.”

The second consultation, entitled “Towards an Ethical Approach to Conversion–Christian Witness in a Multi-religious World,” was held in Toulouse, France, in 2007. The World Evangelical Alliance together with Pentecostals from the US were invited by the WCC to participate in the consultation. Thus, the second consultation took place solely between representatives of Christians to provide input into the eventual code.

The participants of the third (inter-Christian) consultation met in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2011 and finalized the document, Christian Witness in a Multi-religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.10 It contains three main parts: a basis for Christian witness; principles; and recommendations. Let us pay attention to them succinctly.

A basis for Christian witness is enumerated with a scriptural basis. Thus, Jesus is the supreme witness and Christian witness emanates from the triune God in the form of proclaiming the kingdom, serving the neighbour, and the total renunciation of the self. Hence, the teaching of Jesus Christ and the early witnesses of the church provide the guide for Christian mission. In a multi-religious environment, the Christian witness embraces dialogue with religions and cultures. The witness ought to go on, in and out of season, regardless of hindrances. Christian witness must avoid un-Christian methods of carrying out mission, such as resorting to deception and coercive means for conversion. Christians can and must witness, but conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit.

The principles are laid out for Christian witness in fulfilling Christ's commission in a multi-religious context. There are twelve principles: acting in God's love; imitating Jesus Christ; Christian virtues; acts of service and justice; discernment in ministries of healing; rejection of violence; freedom of religion and belief; mutual respect and solidarity; respect for all people; renouncing false witness; ensuring personal discernment; and building inter-religious relations. The above principles, laying down a practical guide with an ethical approach, seek to overcome and minimize the controversies and tensions related to Christian mission and conversion.

The six recommendations lay down a pastoral and catechetical approach for Christians, especially those working in inter-religious contexts. Accordingly, Christians need to do the following:

  • 1. 
    Study issues mentioned in the document with an eye to formulating guidelines relevant to Christian witness in the given context, if possible ecumenically and in consultation with representatives of other religions.
  • 2. 
    Build relationships of respect and trust among churches and other religious communities to iron out suspicions and breaches of trust. Thus, inter-religious dialogue contributes to resolution of conflict, restoration of justice, healing of memories, reconciliation, and peace-building.
  • 3. 
    Encourage Christians to strengthen their own religious identity and faith and deepen the knowledge of other religions.
  • 4. 
    Cooperate with other religions for justice and common good.
  • 5. 
    Call on governments to respect religious freedom.
  • 6. 
    Pray for all neighbours.

Implementation of the Recommendations

  1. Top of page
  2. Conflicting understanding of Christian evangelism, conversion and proselytism
  3. The conversion debate and religious freedom
  4. Christian witness in a multi-religious world: Recommendations for conduct
  5. Implementation of the Recommendations
  6. Conclusion
  7. Biography

The document recommends that churches, regional confessional bodies, and mission organizations working in inter-religious contexts “study the issues and where appropriate formulate guidelines for conduct regarding Christian witness applicable to their particular contexts.” Furthermore, the following actions have been taken to implement it: translation of the document into different languages; dissemination of the document; exposure of the document (articles related to the document have been published in papers and theological journals); and the organization of two brief meetings directly related to the document.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Conflicting understanding of Christian evangelism, conversion and proselytism
  3. The conversion debate and religious freedom
  4. Christian witness in a multi-religious world: Recommendations for conduct
  5. Implementation of the Recommendations
  6. Conclusion
  7. Biography

One of the main objectives of this ecumenical conversation is to address the key challenge of how evangelism can best witness the good news to people of all cultures. We, the disciples of Jesus Christ, ought to undergo a personal inward conversion by purifying our respective communities in order to put into practice the recommendations for conduct on Christian witness. Pope Benedict XVI remarks that missionary outreach is a clear sign of the maturity of an ecclesial community.11 Pope Francis at the very beginning of his ministry spoke of the importance of Christian unity for evangelism:

Let us ask the Father of mercies to enable us to live fully the faith graciously bestowed upon us on the day of our Baptism and to bear witness to it freely, joyfully and courageously. This will be the best service we can offer to the cause of Christian unity, a service of hope for a world still torn by divisions, conflicts and rivalries. The more we are faithful to his will, in our thoughts, words and actions, the more we will progress, really and substantially, towards unity.12

For today's world, afflicted by many ills, inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue are a sacred duty and a vital necessity. Christian Witness in a Multi-religious World: Recommendations for Conduct, as it states in its preamble, “addresses practical issues associated with Christian witness in a multi-religious world.” New ways for authentic discipleship today require that Christians across the world study this document to overcome conversion- and proselytism-related issues in order to give witness to the healing and reconciling message of the gospel. It is not a utopia, but a sacred duty of all disciples of Jesus Christ to implement its recommendations for a better tomorrow.

Footnotes
  1. 1

    Pope Francis, Angelus, St. Peter's Square, Sunday, 20 October 2013.

  2. 2
  3. 3

    Emil Brunner, The Word and the World (London: SCM Press, 1931), 108

  4. 4

    See “Ecumenical Conversations,” WCC 10th Assembly Documents, at: http://wcc2013.info/en/resources/documents/Ecu_Conversations.pdf.

  5. 5

    Ibid.

  6. 6

    Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020, Society, Religion, and Mission June 2013, Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Mass., US, 2013), 8.

  7. 7

    Pentecostal-Roman Catholic Dialogue, Evangelization, Proselytism and Common Witness, 1990–1997, nos. 90–97.

  8. 8

    The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, in Information Service, 97 (1998/1–11), Report IV, no. 78.

  9. 9

    Interreligious Reflection on Conversion – Assessing the Reality,” Lariano, Italy, 12–16 May 2006, Pro Dialogo Bulletin 122 (2006/2), 210213.

  10. 10
  11. 11

    Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, 95.

  12. 12

    Audience with representatives of the churches and ecclesial communities and of the different religions, 20 March 2013.

Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Conflicting understanding of Christian evangelism, conversion and proselytism
  3. The conversion debate and religious freedom
  4. Christian witness in a multi-religious world: Recommendations for conduct
  5. Implementation of the Recommendations
  6. Conclusion
  7. Biography
  • Rev. Dr Indunil J. K. Kankanamalage is undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He was a member of the clergy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Badulla in Badulla, Sri Lanka, and served as a professor at the Faculty of Missiology at the Pontifical Urban University at the Vatican in Rome.