08/18/2011 06:45 pm ET | Updated Oct 18, 2011

Christian Witness In A Multi-Religious World

By A. James Rudin
Religion News Service

(RNS) "Missionary" is one of those words where the meaning depends entirely on who's saying it -- and who's hearing it.

For Christians, it's a word that conjures up images of selfless believers carrying life-saving religion to faraway places. Yet for many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans and others, it recalls overzealous Christians who were (or are) intent on converting the entire world to their faith.

To be fair, some Christian missionaries have done a ton of good, establishing hospitals, colleges and universities, clinics, schools, hospices, and orphanages. But others, in their fervent quest for converts, have used deceptive or coercive proselytism that trampled on the traditional religious traditions of their targets.

For nearly 2,000 years, Jews have been a prime target of Christian evangelism. Despite many positive achievements in Christian-Jewish relations, the issue of mission and conversion remains a painful flash point that must be addressed.

In 1973, evangelical icon Billy Graham came out publicly against attempts to convert Jews, who he said have always had a "special relationship" with God. "Just as Judaism frowns on proselytizing that is coercive, or that seeks to commit men against their will, so do I," he said.

If, as we hope, both sides seek mutual respect and understanding, there can be no authentic dialogue with Jews if Christians have a hidden agenda that includes conversion.

That's why a document issued this summer is so important.

In a rare showing of Christian cooperation, the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance and the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue -- who together represent more than 90 percent of global Christianity -- jointly issued a major document, "Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct."

Calling the statement the "first document of its kind in the history of the church," the three groups denounced "resorting to deception and coercive means," and urged clear guidelines for winning converts, either from another faith or from no faith at all.

Recognizing the long and troubled history of conversion efforts, the statement called upon Christian missionaries to "reject all forms of violence ... including the violation or destruction of places of worship, sacred symbols or texts." In addition, Christians need to "acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good" in other religions; any criticisms of another religion must be made "in a spirit of mutual respect."

Noting the importance of faith healing as an emotional catalyst for some religious conversions, the statement urged missionaries to ensure that the "vulnerability of people and their need for healing are not exploited." Likewise, the document repudiated any form of proselytizing that offered "financial incentives and rewards."

The Rev. Daniel A. Madigan of Georgetown University said the position of the three groups represented a tacit "admission that (coercive and manipulative missionary activities) have been going on."

The document is the latest indication that the terms "mission" and "witness" mean something different than they did in the past. "Mission" has come to mean coercion or manipulation, while "witness" is living one's personal faith without the covert or overt aim of conversion.

Christians would be wise to follow the advice of the late Krister Stendahl, the dean of Harvard Divinity School and the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm. Stendahl spoke of making others "jealous" of one's religious faith, a sort of "holy envy" that's demonstrated by the quality of family lives, personal ethics, social justice concerns, and prayer.

Stendahl believed that was the best form of missionary activity. And so do I.

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published "Christians & Jews, Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.")