Multi-faith World


Home Up Multi-faith World Holiness in Bradley County Christian Glossolalia







 A Discerning Theology of Christian Evangelism Suitable for a Multi-faith World


By Rev. Dr. Tony Richie[1]



Introductory Setting


The idea of discernment, likely because of inclusion in the charismata of 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, has traditionally been highly valued within Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Specifically, discernment διάκρισις/diakrisis in this particular Pauline pericope suggests God’s gracious gifting of pneumatological enablement for differentiating or distinguishing the distinctive nature of spiritual stimuli. More broadly, its root word, κρίνω/krino, often involves situations of prudent decision making or wisdom in exercising judgment.[2] The present essay broadly adapts the theme of discernment theologically in discussing Christian evangelism and witness in today’s increasingly religiously pluralistic environment.[3] It hypothesizes that the contemporary interreligious climate calls for more nuanced and subtle theological perception of Christian evangelism and witness than has previously informed common praxis.


The immediate background prompting the writing of this essay arises out of three considerations: (1) Pentecostal engagement of World Council of Churches (WCC) or the National Council of Churches (NCC) on a topic which has posed a point of divergence; (2) North American contextualization in conversation with a partner with Eurocentric orientations; and, (3) theological implications of reclaiming evangelism in ecumenical parachurch organizations.


However, the singular objective of this essay has more to do with outlining a prudent theological context for the faithful exercise of Christian evangelism and witness in a manner cognizant of the challenges and opportunities of conducting ecclesial mission in a more self-consciously multi-faith world. Accordingly, it will discuss the implications of a sociologically informed missiology; the example of Islamophobia as a missional challenge; efforts to reclaim evangelism and witness with attentive sensitivity to the realities of religious diversity and pluralism, and some special challenges raised for Pentecostals; beginning movement from a traditional approach to evangelism toward a more nuanced and subtle theology and praxis; a distinctively Pentecostal trajectory utilizing Spirit baptism and speaking in tongues for development with a reconfiguration of witness as worship; and, finally, a theology of presence as an effectual conceptual paradigm for Christian evangelism and witness in interfaith environments.


Sociologically Informed Missiology 


Based on the sociological model of “the exculturation of Christianity,” which sees Christianity as being displaced by secularism, Pentecostal missiologist Blayne Waltrip argues for “fresh expressions” of, among other things, Christian evangelization and witness.[4] Waltrip’s study focuses on France as a foreboding example of frequent developments in Western Europe. The de-Christianization of Europe requires a new look at how the churches do evangelistic mission. In fact, survival demands it.


Accordingly, some churches simply seek creative ways to build relationships but others admit outright hostility to the words “evangelization” or “evangelism” and what they represent.[5] While both groups seem to agree that traditional evangelistic methods leave something lacking, these latter feel evangelistic witness as normally practiced among many Christians strain human relationships and actually turn off potential converts to Christ. Often that effectively ends further opportunities for positive association with the church.


Therefore, missional churches seek more “incarnational and organic” means of bearing public witness to Christ.[6] The key is to get to know people, earn their respect, gain their trust—or in other words, build relationship. Accordingly, these “incarnated Christian communities are living out their faith in fresh expressions.”[7] Witnessing is not seen as an activity or some kind of dutiful task but as a faithful way of living out commitment to Christ and his Church. Waltrip concludes that “By incarnating the kingdom of God in contemporary culture, these fresh expressions bring hope to a secular, postmodern, and post-Christendom Europe.”[8]


Significantly, Waltrip’s discussion of ecclesial mission in the midst of secularization and of “the exculturation of Christianity” is not disconnected to witness in a multifaith environment. In the same volume with Waltrip’s chapter, Richard Sudworth suggests that the mindset of secular culture has directly affected theology of religions in unfortunate ways.[9] The already complex nature of how Christians and people of other religious faiths relate to each other has been further complicated not only by the fact of their coexistence in secular society but how that coexistence is processed and applied. Consequently, Christian mission has had to focus more on sharing life together with those of other religious faiths with serious attention to building long-term relationships in a kind of “multifaith parish”.[10]


What do the convulsion-like collisions of secular and sacred (religious) agendas have to do with theologizing about Christian evangelism and witness intended to encourage spiritual discernment in missional situations demanding prudent decision making or wisdom in exercising judgment? Perhaps a couple of additional questions from Ryan Bolger may help answer our question.


How might the church not only survive but also thrive in the midst of environmental crises, hybrid cultures, pluralism, cultures of creativity and art, consumerism, and new spiritualities? How might the church situate its practices of worship, community formation, mission, and leadership within these cultures while challenging them at the same time?[11]


Note that the situation of religious pluralism is actually only one of several challenging opportunities reshaping the way Christians do mission today. Understanding that our world is in the throes of a broad and deep cultural shift demanding creative response consistent with enduring faith and values is essential for effective performance of Christian mission today. This shift and our response to it include but are not limited to how Christians interpret and practice evangelism and witness. Arguably, therefore, the current complexification  of global societies demonstrates, and demands, the need for discernment—that is, for prudent judgment—in carefully identifying dynamics, often characterized by elusive fluidity, energizing today’s culture, for the implementation of appropriate evangelistic/witnessing responses is critical.


Example of Islamophobia


The discussion in the next few sections supplies some contextual insight for the subsequent discussion of Christian evangelism with focus on its encounter of interfaith issues. Because of the prominence of the problem and public attention to it, Islamophobia is selected for discussion purposes. Other problems besides Islamophobia could also be mentioned. Fallout from centuries of colonialism, racism, sexism, imperialism, and so on, makes evangelism in today’s multi-faith world especially complex. Bryan Stone argues that astute sensitivity to the ways in which Christian evangelism has in the past been practiced violently, intentionally or unintentionally, is essential for effective evangelism in today’s world.[12] Acute discomfort with Christian evangelism is increasing not only within contexts of formal interfaith dialogue but in contexts of the lived diversity of the wider culture as well.[13]


My contention is that authentic evangelism is distorted and twisted by attitudes, words, and deeds arising out of evangelism abuses or by ignorance of their impact on Christian mission. Awareness of these problems and the intractable dilemmas they spawn helps in understanding need for the subtle nuances of the theology of evangelism outlined in the following. Yet the transforming stories of Israel, of Jesus, of the Apostles and the Church, must be shared straightforwardly in contrast to rival narratives or subversive evangelistic forms.[14] In other words, a discerning or discriminating theology of Christian evangelism is necessary.


Before addressing a theology of Christian evangelism suitable for a multi-faith world, I suggest, it is essential to explicate something about the kind of challenges that a multi-faith world bring to evangelism. In the United States and around the world, Islamophobia is a serious concern. Again, it is one example out of several interreligious issues. Recently an Evangelical group asked me for a brief response on Islamophobia.[15] I did so as a Pentecostal observer.[16] I argued that Islamophobia is by definition irrational, extreme, and unchristian. In a nation founded upon freedom of religion, it’s also un-American. The question naturally follows: “Then why are many of us so afraid of Islam?”


According to Psychology Today xenophobia (Greek, fear of strangers), or the tendency to quickly judge, fear, or even hate the unknown, is common human nature.[17] Superficially, perhaps humans are all-too-easily affected/infected by fear of the other—any other, whether of ethnicity, race, gender, ideology, religion, etc. To go a bit deeper, maybe we’re afraid for our individual survival or the societal survival of our culture and country. Even more deeply, perhaps we’re afraid that Islam will challenge our own religious identity and integrity—which is why, I think, that in my experience I have found Christians who are most secure in their faith to be least Islamaphobic. There are probably several other fear factors contributing to rising Islamophobia. But we do have a choice when it comes to whom we fear and how we react. We can choose not to give in to our xenophobic tendencies.


Of course, there is competitive rivalry between religions, including Christianity and Islam. That’s natural enough. We “compete” for the same “resources”, namely and mainly people. But Islamophobia goes further. Islamophobia invokes fear and invites violence. Islamophobia is sinful. It is in the same category with racism and sexism—only, if possible, even more virulent. But from whence does it come?


Origins of Islamophobia


Biblically, expulsion or banishment is at the core of the fallen human condition. Adam and Eve’s exile is decisive and definitive for us all. “Banished” (ṣālaḥ) is the same language used of Abraham’s action that “sends away” Ishmael and other possible rivals to Isaac (Gen 21:14; 25:6). It describes the scapegoat that is expelled from the camp of Israel (Lev 16:10). Still stronger is “drove” (gāraš) in Genesis 3:24, which also describes God’s exile of Cain (4:14) and Sarah’s charge to Abraham to “get rid” of the slave girl Hagar with her son (21:10). It is the language of divorce and dispossession (e.g., Ex 33:2; Deut 33:27).[18] Is it some small coincidence that these incidents all involve irrational fear and implacable strife against the other?


Apparently deep in each human being resides an abominable instinct, arising out of fallen, sinful nature, which casts others out and drives others away in twisted reenactment of their own haunting sense of exclusion, otherness, and alienation. Matthew’s Gospel teaches that the danger of ultimate exclusion is not imaginary (8:12; 22:13; 25:30). But Jesus himself endured for us the darkness outside (22:53; 23:44; cp. Heb 13:11, 13). Now all may stand before an open gate (Rev 21:25). If incessant anxiety over our innate sense of separation from God and each other is our damnation, then there is salvation too. One is reminded of Paul Tillich’s theology describing sin and salvation in terms of alienation and restoration.[19] Thus Miroslav Volf’s basic theological point on the essentiality of reconciliation for the reality of Christian salvation has further relevance for Christian theology of religions.[20]


Exclusivist tendencies often stem from unconscious psychological and sociological concerns over one’s own ultimate exclusion/inclusion.[21] One who has the prerogative and power to exclude others does not see him/herself present among the excluded. Thus irrational fears (phobias) over alienation can sometimes lead people to form small, close-knit cults such as the Branch Davidians—with disastrous consequences.[22] Arguably, Islamophobia arises out of similar instincts spread still more broadly. However, putting oneself in the position of deciding who is or isn’t included or excluded involves sinful usurpation of divine sovereignty (1 Co 5:12-13).


An Example of Overcoming


My home state of Tennessee has become a hotbed for tensions with Muslims. A conflict over building an Islamic Center in Murfreesboro which went all the way to the Supreme Court received widespread attention. With the Chattanooga shooting (July 17, 2015) of military personnel in a “gun free zone” by a “lone wolf” radicalized “homegrown” Islamic terrorist, conditions became intolerably critical. Shortly after the Chattanooga shooting I wrote an article about overcoming such evil through our faith.[23] Since its publication a local example of concertedly confronting Islamophobia has occurred.[24].


            The Knoxville Women’s Interfaith Peace Initiative convened a clergy panel on “hot topics” related to interfaith relations. This panel consisted of a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Lutheran pastor, two Methodist pastors, a Unitarian Universalist pastor, and me, a Church of God (Cleveland, TN) pastor. Both panel and attendees were an intriguing mix of faiths and values. Meeting on Monday, November, 16, 2015, we were pressed to address the horrific terrorist attack by ISIS on Paris the previous Friday. Muslims present soundly denounced the ISIS attack, labeling its perpetrators as violators of true Islam. Attendees identified economic, ethnic, geo-political, or religious factors as the sole or primary contributor behind these atrocious acts. I argued that causes, and solutions, of terrorism are complex and multifaceted. We struggled together to understand and respond to radicalized jihadist ideology and the despicable acts of its adherents. Together we faced our fear.


Although perhaps not immediately evident to everyone, the preceding example represents one form of Christian evangelism or witness in a multi-faith context threatened by an Islamaphobic environment. To be clear, it was not a clandestine attempt aimed at making immediate converts. However, I enjoyed ample opportunity to share how faith in Christ informs my life in times of anguish and anger. And I did so without any embarrassment on my part or any resentment on the part of others. (I contrasted 20th century existential French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, an atheist, on existence as despair with the hopefulness of people of faith in general before testifying specifically how my Christian faith in Christ’s cross and resurrection bring me through the darkness of despair into the light of life.[25]) That exemplifies a reclaiming, and perhaps reconfiguring, of evangelism for a particular multi-faith environment.


Perhaps the Church can best do evangelism or witness by being the Church as much or more as by doing. Yet the Church’s core practices witness to the world as “the public of the Spirit”, the place where the Holy Spirit makes Christ present and available.[26] Christologically centered, pneumatologically oriented, and ecclesiologically rooted theology of evangelism would seem more than palatable for Pentecostals. Further, such a theology of the missio Dei enables expansive witness through holistic ecclesial mission. Thus Stone posits a theology of evangelism which exists together with interfaith dialogue and involves openness to mutual transformation by “evangelizing Christians” and their partners without diluting the gospel story—rather, if anything, it re-centralizes Jesus with concentration on the necessity and unity of his life, death, and resurrection.[27]


Christian Evangelism in a Multi-faith World


As Stone puts it, “the e-word”, or evangelism, and what it entails, does indeed stand in need of serious reclamation (in more ways than one).[28] For many years mainstream ecumenical movements, such as the WCC or the NCC, have downplayed the central importance of Christian evangelism for ecclesial mission. In part, this attitude doubtless drew from the division of mainstream Protestantism’s focus on Christian unity and on the so-called “social gospel” from Evangelicalism’s (including Pentecostals) almost single-minded focus on evangelism and conversion. This contrast has been a longstanding point of divergence between ecumenicalism and Pentecostalism.[29] However, a number of factors, including declining membership, appear to be leading ecumenists to reconsider evangelism.[30] Accordingly, as Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS)[31] liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the NCC I received an invitation to participate in a panel presentation at the North American WCC Conference on Reclaiming Evangelism.[32] The panel’s theme was “Shaping Evangelizing Communities for a Multi-Faith and Multi-Cultural Context”. I spoke specifically on “Evangelical-Pentecostal Insights and Observations”.


I think it safe to say, although admittedly anecdotally, that for Evangelicals and Pentecostals dynamic evangelism is in our “DNA”. It is probably at least partially responsible for some of our phenomenal growth—although admittedly multiple demographical dynamics are also notable. Further, relating ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and cooperation with the theme of evangelism, in my assessment, is a most important, if complex, subject.


It so happens that I was the Pentecostal consultant to WCC on the development and implementation of the groundbreaking document “Christian Witness in a Multi-Faith World: Recommendations for Conduct” (CWMFW) (2005-2011).[33] Unprecedented in several ways, including the level of Pentecostal involvement, it was the first and (so far) the only ever document affirmed by the Vatican, the WCC, and the World Evangelical Fellowship. As it officially represented the vast majority of organized Christian bodies in the world, it is an important aid for interfaith thought and practice.  Therefore, I utilized this document for the “Reclaiming Evangelism” panel discussion.


In short, CWMFW addresses ecclesial mission in a religiously plural world. It offers a solidly and emphatically biblical basis for Christian witness that nevertheless admits real responsibilities for appropriate and ethical performance of mission in complex contexts involving, among other things, multiple, or majority non-Christian, religious cultures. It highlights 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 interreligious relationships. A shorter list of recommendations calls on individuals, faith communities, and governments to put these principles into practice in concrete and specific ways.


An interesting feature of CWMFW is that it includes a description of the background which led to its initiation and implementation. In a word, increasing interreligious tensions leading to violence and loss of human life are making collaborations among and between Christians and followers of different religions critically necessary. Significantly, Christian evangelism theology and methodology are often at the center of these disturbing crises. Pentecostals are often involved—sometimes with violent consequences, according to Cephas Omeno.[34]


Representative Challenges for Pentecostals


Each of the points and principles above were exhaustively debated over the process of CWMFW coming into being. However, obviously some were more difficult to navigate as a Pentecostal. A few bear directly on our task of reclaiming evangelism theology. For instance, I found myself constantly stressing undiminished commitment to evangelistic witness. In fact, as can be seen in the document itself, attempts to get any version of the word “evangelize” or “evangelism” into the document finally failed. I was assured that “Christian witness” should cover that idea well enough. Terminology aside, overall the document does drive at carefully integrating twin missional goals of evangelistic outreach and social responsibilities. I see these recent “reclaiming evangelism” webinars and this Reclaiming Evangelism conference as, in part, attempts to work toward (what I see as) more holistic ecclesial mission.[35]


For another instance, Pentecostal emphasis on physical healing and material blessing was a sore spot for some in other religions. They suggested Pentecostals are “bribing” their adherents to convert by promising that which cannot be delivered. Some other non-Pentecostal Christians were not far removed from the same opinion. Thankfully, I was able to keep that emphasis intact as authentic Christian ministry. Partly I argued that it is an intrinsic part of Pentecostalism, not some ingenious methodology (read “cheap trick”). Partly I testified about my own divine healing. What eventually came out of it was a stern call for discernment. And should not spiritual discernment be a major component of healing ministries and blessing emphases?


One more challenge was huge: how to relate authentic and energetic evangelism with ethical and responsible social justice advocacy. It was clear that Evangelical/Pentecostal participants tended to stress the former while WCC/Vatican tended to stress the latter. However, neither side denied the other’s significance. Accordingly, we eventually decided on an integrative model. For me, a discerning Pentecostal theology of Christian evangelism with an integrative model suggests accepting, even accentuating, the witness nature and evangelistic value of not only gospel proclamation (word) but also gospel demonstration (deed). I suggest that this re-orientation may not be merely a change of emphasis; it may involve an enlargement of what evangelism entails. Again, I do not mean that Pentecostals have not given due attention to good deeds toward others. That is simply not the case. But Pentecostals may more typically view these acts of love and mercy in terms of simple benevolence. An integrative model calls for more consideration of these acts as intrinsically bearing witness to Christ evangelistically.


Traditional Evangelism Emphasis


Pentecostals see witnessing as particularly important to their identity as a movement. For instance, French Arrington considers an intended result and a main purpose of Spirit baptism, the central distinctive of Pentecostalism, to be endowment of power for bold witnessing (Acts 1.8).[36] Pentecostal ecclesiology stresses the role of the Church as a community sending forth evangelists and bearing witness to Jesus Christ. Usually this process involves direct proclamation, that is, preaching and teaching or personal witnessing. Yet, Pentecostals are not unaware that the Church’s mission includes worship to God, edification of believers, and social concern for the world, along with evangelization of the lost or unconverted.[37] Nevertheless, Pentecostals are noted for a Book of Acts approach to the Christian life, and witness has been presented as a primary theological integrating theme for Acts.


How does Pentecostal theology deal with changing paradigms of evangelistic mission? For example, Richard Armstrong asserts that a chief challenge to the contemporary Church is “how to do evangelism in a pluralistic world” while “affirming the truth of other faiths without compromising the uniqueness of Christ”.[38] Traditionally, Pentecostals have had absolutely no problem with the latter half of Armstrong’s equation but the first part poses a new challenge. Similarly, Scott Jones argues that Christian theology of witness flows out of the universal love of God for the entire world, including persons of other religions, thus enabling evangelism and dialogue. At its core Christian witness is inseparable from the love of God for everyone, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahá'í, and others.[39] Again, traditionally Pentecostals have no problem whatsoever with affirming God’s love for everyone, including those in other religions, but that God’s love provides enablement of dialogue as well as evangelism poses a new challenge.


Obviously, Christian witness can take diverse forms. For example, John Howard Yoder convincingly argues that Christian witness must address the State and its social order.[40] And Charles Kraft proposes that those engaged in the ministry of Christian witness, at least in a cross-cultural context, which anymore means just about everyone, need a crash course (or more) in anthropology in order to understand the complex identities of their audience.[41] Frances Adeney is surely right both that evangelistic witness is complex and controversial and that what is needed is a more graceful approach.[42] Some Christians see witnessing as an act of love and obedience while some non-Christians see it as an arrogant attempt to impose one’s views on others. Surely not only the content but the tone of witnessing should be graceful? If so, should Pentecostals identify mechanisms to equip them for modeling graceful Christian witness in a diverse world?


A brief but instructive testimony exemplifies a discerning nuance necessary for a theology of evangelistic witness in a multi-faith world. Together with Religions for Peace USA, the Faith & Culture Center hosted the Our Muslim Neighbor conference in Nashville, Tennessee at Vanderbilt Divinity School (September 26, 2015). Zaynab Ansari, a Muslim scholar at Tayseer Seminary in Knoxville, and I were co-presenters on a Christian-Muslim dialogue and cooperation initiative we had been developing in Knoxville. During the “Q&A”, a man from the audience harshly interrogated me about whether I believed everyone not Christian is going to Hell. I thought him out of order for our purposes that day. So I tried to deflect it—unsuccessfully. Pushed farther, I made my commitments to Christian evangelism and witness crystal clear. Additionally, I asserted that I did not see these commitments as inconsistent with interfaith dialogue and cooperation. My Muslim colleague quickly jumped to support me. She asserted that both our traditions have commitments to making converts (Da‘wah,‎ Arabic for “invitation”), adding that we have also deep disagreements that will likely remain unsettled until Judgment Day. Ansari further insisted that none of this is inconsistent with interfaith dialogue and cooperation. I agree her. I would turn it the other way around, too. Christian sensitivity to the religiously plural realities of our contemporary world is not inconsistent with energetic evangelism in appropriate settings and times. A discerning and sagacious theology of Christian evangelism and witness should enable sustainability of multifaceted missional activities in a complementary mode.


Nuanced and Subtle Theology and Praxis


So far this essay has suggested that a discerning theology of Christian evangelism and witness in today’s interreligious climate calls for nuanced and subtle theology and praxis of Christian evangelism and witness. The message of the gospel must not change but the methods of its proclamation may. As indicated, Pentecostals and the WCC and the NCC have typically taken divergent paths when it comes to evangelism and interfaith dialogue.  Further, the WCC has tended to be Eurocentric although the NCC certainly imbibes from North American contextualization.  Pentecostalism is a global movement with roots in the United States. Apparently, the priority and practice of Christian evangelization, although in different forms according to differing visions, transcends such ideological and geographical settings.


What are the theological implications of reclaiming evangelism in ecumenical parachurch organizations? In particular, what are the theological implications for Pentecostals who may be more or less cooperating or partnering with such organizations in the context of their own continuing commitments to ardent and effective evangelism? Against the backdrop of this paper’s discussion, I offer the following brief suggestions for consideration. First, Pentecostals might consider a theology of discerning cooperation with other Christians. Without compromise of their own convictions, Pentecostals may work together with other believers to let the light of Christ shine in the world through visible acts of unity.


Second, Pentecostals might consider a theology of discerning openness to those of other (i.e. non-Christian) religions. Without lessening unfortunate but necessary precautions for personal security, Pentecostals may stand in solidarity with those of good will in other religions, thus become living letters of God’s love in Christ for the world. Thirdly, Pentecostals might consider a theology of discerning praxis in evangelism and witness. Without in any way diminishing their commitment to winning souls and transforming lives, Pentecostals may demonstrate loving alternatives to any evangelistic or witnessing means and methods more or less designed to pressure others into confessing Christ. Obviously, these are only general suggestions. Others could be added. Even these require much further development. However, perhaps they are enough to suggest the tone of a possible trajectory toward a discerning theology of Christian evangelism and witness.


A Trajectory for Development


Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong creatively develops or interprets/re-interprets Pentecostal traditional themes for contemporary utilization. Yong therefore expands the traditional Pentecostal emphasis on Spirit baptism as empowerment for witness with tongues as a sign of power for witness, without eliminating it, to a more holistic and multidimensional  inclusion of “the work of God in Christ to save, sanctify, and empower the people of God to participate in the cosmic history of salvation.”[43] Further, on an individual level “the empowerment of the Spirit enables testimony to and participation in God’s work in Jesus”.[44] Pentecostals should guard against tendencies in their witnessing thought and practice toward overemphasis on the positive, especially minus the harsh reality of human suffering, or a theology of glory/triumphalism, and also toward underemphasizing the ethical aspect, or the critical role of Spirit baptism for enabling witness through a life lived counter to the ways of the world.[45] In addition to their value in personal experience, theologically, speaking in tongues signifies that Spirit baptism enables witness to the wonderful works of God in Christ even beyond the limitations of human language and ability.[46]


            I suggest that Yong’s observations may be utilized to undergird a discerning theology of Christian evangelism and witness that affirms a positive place for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Thus Spirit baptism and speaking in tongues may provide theological and missiological impetus for expanding our understanding, and its implementation, of witness. Significantly, the expansion does not exclude, as in eliminate, existing emphases focusing on proclamation witness of a certain sort. Rather, it simply recognizes, and energizes, those times when the best Christian witness is a Spirit-filled presence through dialogue for understanding and cooperation for good works in the midst of today’s cultural and social diversity and plurality.

            In conjunction with some of my work, Yong also argues that rather than seeing witnessing as primarily targeting proselytism, Pentecostals should view witnessing as an act of worship toward God which can include reciprocating testimonies in “a relational matrix”.[47] Therefore, Christian witness does not require antagonism toward adherents of other faiths.[48] What the range of Christian practices does require is “theological understanding and worshipful witness that participates in and facilitates God’s saving and sanctifying work in Christ”.[49] Therefore, Christian witness is bidirectional, not just directed toward people but toward God for God’s glory. 


            Does not such a view of witness transcend “head count” methods which only consider efforts aimed at immediate conversions as real witnessing? Witness offered to God as worship testifies of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in diverse settings through whatever opportunities are presented with a wide range of approaches. Significantly, it leaves the results, including conversion, but also enhanced understanding and its immense fruits, in God’s hands, trusting the Holy Spirit to work. Consequently, the audience and the objective of witness can become broader, deeper, and fuller.


The Witness of Presence


Concluding all that is required is tweaking classic evangelism/witnessing methodologies in favor of more stylish contemporary versions would be a mistake. While working on this essay I happened to attend a world mission conference conducted at the international offices of my home denomination.[50] It was a great conference. Several presenters talked about the importance of the Internet, digital technology, and social media for doing mission today. I concur. That is a “no brainer.” However, I am more about updating our substance and strategy than our style. At this mission conference I presented on interfaith work as Christian mission. A couple who pastor in a community (Dearborn, Michigan) with a heavy population concentration of Muslims presented on evangelism ministry among Muslims.[51] They stressed informed contextualization and long term relationship building. That is more what I mean too. Even further, what I mean is exercising spiritual discernment in our interactions with religious others through engaging in dialogue and cooperation.


Where is the witness? Much witness simply comes through Christians exhibiting willingness to work together with those of other religions. It is the witness of presence. Sudworth is surely right that in multi-faith environments an intentionally and uniquely welcoming Christian presence is often the most effective witness missiologically speaking.[52] Christian chaplains and pastors have long realized that in much of their public work, particularly among the “unchurched” or non-Christians, the most effective ministry simply helps people encounter God’s presence through Christians’ presence.[53]


Theologian-pastor Frances Young, in my opinion, nails it on a “search for a Christian theology which is robust enough to discern the presence of God in a post-Christian, pluralistic society”.[54] First, note that she actually describes Christians’ need for recognizing God’s presence in the world. Is not this a necessary prelude to non-Christian religious devotees recognizing God’s presence in Christians in the world? Secondly, Young specifically describes systematic theology for “public life” rather than “ecclesial life” or “personal life”. While more direct, more explicit liturgy is suitable for the life of the churches as such, and more direct, more explicit piety and spirituality are suitable for individual believers, does not a more indirect, more implicit approach with the public seem most circumspect? 


Significantly, Young draws her overall paradigm of encountering God’s presence as a guiding principle for theological development from the culturally and religiously pluralistic world engaged by the patristic church. If our experience of the world today is likely more similar to that of the Early Church, at least in terms of diversity and plurality, than perhaps any other time until the present, does it not stand to reason that an approach which served them so well could also be effective today? Here an apostolic injunction appears relevant: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15 NIV). Rather than some formal apologetic or legal setting, this passage apparently “envisions instead informal circumstances when believers are asked spontaneously about their faith.”[55] The questioners were primarily pagans.


In short, believers go forth into a diverse and pluralistic world as Christ-bearers. When those of other faiths sense God’s presence in the lives of Christians whom they get to know personally, many invite further elaboration from their Christian friends. Then Christians respond by politely and respectfully sharing their testimony of Christ’s salvific and transformative influence in their lives. We trust that the mysterious and wondrous working of the Holy Spirit accomplishes the rest (John 3:8). Of course individuals will respond differently, some in faith and some, sadly, in unbelief—but that is the biblical pattern too (3:19-21).


Concluding Summary and Suggestions


I have argued that the present complexity and diversity of global cultural contexts require a discerning theology of Christian evangelism and witness, particularly in multi-faith environments, for effective performance of ecclesial mission. I have utilized Islamophobia as an example of both challenges and opportunities for Christian witnessing. I have further noted that ecumenical parachurch organizations, such as the WCC and NCC, as well as academic organizations such as SPS, have begun transitioning into creative revisioning of existing evangelism language and praxis. Theologically, Spirit baptism and speaking in tongues provide a trajectory for developing Pentecostals’ evangelism thought and practice beyond previous conceptualizations. And now we are thinking of Christian witness as doxology. I conclude that a theology of presence is appropriate for and effective in Christian evangelistic ministry in a multi-faith world.


            I close with a bit of a personal, pastoral reflection. In my experience of the Pentecostal movement, and of Evangelicalism as well, often the evangelism emphasis is on proclamation. Orally sharing the gospel is what witnessing has come to be mostly all about. I do not at all wish to downplay the vital importance of oral witness in evangelism. Whether rightly or wrongly, I suspect some might read this work with trepid concern that it dilutes oral witness or direct evangelism. I see it quite the contrary. By placing emphasis on the oral initiation of witnessing believers have opened themselves up to a criticism that too many witnesses “don’t practice what they preach”. Ultimately, many of their converts do not “stick” either. Contrariwise imagine reversing that process. Imagine people, regardless of their faith background, who are so moved by observing Christians consistently practicing their faith in word and deed that they are inspired to invite Christians to witness to them. Now that is bold indeed! Undoubtedly, it is more difficult as well. Witnessing is one of those things which are “easier said than done.” But, I am sure it will be more effective in the long run. And Christian evangelistic witness is intractably oriented toward eternity (John 3:16).


[1] I presented a considerably shorter and somewhat different version of this essay at the 45th Annual Society for Pentecostal Studies meeting in San Dimas, CA at Life Pacific College (March 10-12, 2016).

[2] G. Kittel, G.W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich, eds., Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 3) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-), 922.

[3] Amos Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), utilizes this idea in a different direction.

[4] Blayne Waltrip, “Fresh Expressions of Missional Church in French-Speaking Europe,” ed. Ryan K. Bolger, The Gospel After Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 74-87.

[5] Waltrip, “Fresh Expressions,” 84-85.

[6] Waltrip, “Fresh Expressions,” 85.

[7] Waltrip, “Fresh Expressions,” 87.

[8] Waltrip, “Fresh Expressions,” 87.

[9] Richard Sudworth, “Distinctly Welcoming: the Church in a Pluralist Culture,” Bolger, The Gospel After Christendom, 131-32.

[10] Sudworth, “Distinctly Welcoming,” 136-37.

[11] Ryan K. Bolger, “Conclusion,” Bolger, Gospel After Christendom, 353.

[12] Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: the Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006)

[13] Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 10, 152.

[14] Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 111.

[15] The relationship between Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism is close but complex. See Terry L. Cross, “A Proposal to Break the Ice: What Can Pentecostal Theology Offer Evangelical Theology? Journal of Pentecostal Theology, 11.2 (2002), 44-73. Vinson Synan, “Evangelicalism, Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard M. Van Der Maas, eds., New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (NIDPCM) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 613-16.

[16] The following section draws from Tony Richie, “Brief Response on Islamophobia by a Pentecostal Observer, Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue (forthcoming 2016).

[17] Jeffrey Winters, “Why We Fear the Unknown,” Psychology Today (May 1, 2002),

[18] K.A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 257.

[19] For a recent and groundbreaking discussion of Pentecostal theology engaging a wide range of Tillich’s thought, see Nimi Wariboko and Amos Yong, eds., Paul Tillich and Pentecostal Theology: Spiritual Presence and Spiritual Power (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015). On Tillich’s theology of religions note Chap. 11, Tony Richie, “What have Pentecostals to do with ‘the Religion of the Concrete Spirit’? Tillich’s Theology of Religions in the Twenty-First Century Global Renewal Context”.

[20] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

[21] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 2001) and James William Jones, Blood that Cries Out from the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) provide startling insight into psychological and sociological dynamics of religious identity, especially in unhealthy or hazardous manifestations.

[22] Hal Foster, “Cult of Despair,” New York Times (30 December 1994): A3.

[23] Tony Richie, “Chattanooga Shooting: a Chance to Overcome Evil with Good,” SCUPE (7/22/2015), posted by Faith News Network (7/24/2015):

[24] The following draws from Tony Richie, “Correlating Intra-Christian Relations and Interreligious Realities,” Christian Unity and Pentecostal Faith, ed. Peter Hocken, Tony Richie, and Christopher A. Stephenson (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, forthcoming).

[25] Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Wall (Intimacy) and Other Stories (NY: New Directions, 1969) powerfully dramatizes his view of existential despair.

[26] Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 240. See 15 and 189.

[27] Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 161-63. Stone sees “emphasis on the fullness of the church’s evangelistic offer” consistently with the tradition of John Wesley’s insistence on presenting Christ according to all his “offices”, 210 fn. 29.

[28] Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 9.

[29] See C. M. Robeck, “World Council of Churches,” NIDPCM, 1213-17, and R. Saarinen, World Council of Churches, 946-49, William A. Dryness and Veli-Matti Karkkainen, eds. Global Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008).

[30] Cp. Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 153.

[31] For more on this academic organization, see

[32] This occurred November 1, 2015 at United Methodist Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, TN.

[33] See I was the only person, Pentecostal or otherwise, directly involved in its entire 5-year formulation process. Interestingly, my participation was through WCC auspices.

[34] Cephas Omenyo, “Renewal, Christian Mission, and Encounter with the Other,” in Amos Yong and Clifton Clarke, eds., Global Renewal, Religious Pluralism, and the Great Commission: Towards a Renewal Theology of Mission and Interreligious Encounter (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2011), 137-56.  

[35] In 2015 WCC’s did a series of webinars on evangelism. For one webinar, they invited Father Darren Dias, Professor of Theology, St. Michael's College University (Toronto, Canada) and me to dialogue on “Evangelism in a Multifaith Context”: These culminate in a North American Conference on “Reclaiming Evangelism: Celebrating Change and Collaboration in Nashville, TN (30 Oct-1 Nov):

[36] French L. Arrington, Christian Doctrine: A Pentecostal Perspective (3 vol) (Cleveland, TN: Pathway, 1993), 197, 199.

[37] John R. Higgins, Michael L. Dunsing, and Frank D. Tallman, An Introduction to Theology: A Classical Pentecostal Perspective (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1993), 175-76.

[38] Richard Stroll Armstrong, “Evangelism,” Richardson and Bowden (eds.), Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, 192.

[39] Scott J. Jones, The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor: A Theology of Witness and Discipleship (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), esp. Chap. 7.

[40] John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State (Newton, KS: Herald, 2002).

[41] Charles H. Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996, 2001).

[42] Frances S. Adeney, Graceful Evangelism: Christian Witness in a Complex World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

[43] Amos Yong, Renewing Christian Theology: Systematics for a Global Christianity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 93.

[44] Yong, Renewing, 95.

[45] Yong, Renewing, 96.

[46] Yong, Renewing, 98.

[47] Yong, Renewing, 324.

[48] Yong, Renewing, 325.

[49] Yong, Renewing, 352.

[50] Church of God (Cleveland, TN USA): (

[51] See Frederick and Melody Nichols, Ishmael’s Blessing International:, or Harvest International Worship Center, For a more overt evangelism training organization focusing on Muslims, also sponsored as a 
Church of God mission project, see Jerry McNabb, Global Institute for Ministry and Training:

[52] Richard Sudworth, Distinctly Welcoming: Christian Presence in a Multifaith Society (UK: Scripture Union, 2007).

[53] Neil Holm, “Toward a Theology of the Ministry of Presence in Chaplaincy,” Journal of Christian Education 52:1 (May 2009), accessed April 9, 2016:

[54] Frances Young, God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (Current Issues in Theology) (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 3.

[55] T. R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude Vol. 37 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 174.