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What's Wrong With Evangelism and How We Can Save It?

03/21/2012 12:04 am ET | Updated May 21, 2012

What could possibly be wrong with something as kind-hearted as evangelism, simply "sharing the good news?" And what flaw could Muslim, Christian or atheist evangelicals (and yes there are atheist evangelicals, proclaiming that since there is no God, there's no good purpose for religion) possibly share?

Well, since we all believe that we're unquestionably "right" regarding something as centrally important as the purpose of the universe and the meaning of life itself, it's actually pretty understandable that we might come across as a little aggressively offensive sometimes.
But what's worse? The corollary is that everyone else is wrong.

And if you too want to be "right like us," then you have to completely abandon what you -- and likely your friends and family -- believe, alter your worldview and along the way reinterpret your personal narrative and your entire perspective on history, culture and politics. Along the way likely finding that you've been abandoned in return too.

Now obviously, if we're talking to someone whose life, friends, family, culture, history, politics or personal narrative craves changing they might like listening. But when we're dealing with someone who's in a better place, should we be surprised when that sort of "evangelism" fails?

Earlier this month, I met with a group of Christian Evangelical leaders in Alberta, in my role as a "Muslim Evangelist" smack-dab in the middle of Canada's Bible Belt for what ended up being a frustrating conversation for everyone. The purpose, as advertised, was to talk about how to move beyond our doctrines, dogmas, and religious differences, because honestly, I think we all realize we've got a problem. Instead, we once again got bogged down discussing why we all just can't believe the same things, when those things we believe make so much sense, at least to us.
A conversation I call Plastic Jesus Versus Monolithic Islam, but not for the reasons you might think. Because I don't actually think "plastic" is a pejorative. Yes, the phrase originated in an old Rush and Cromarty folk song, indicting the impact of marketing on religion, and the willingness of some Evangelicals to make their religion say virtually anything if it helped them make a "sale".

But plastic also means "able to be molded," and something that came out very powerfully that night was that we all -- Muslim and Christian together -- believed equally in Jesus even though we believed different things about him. For instance, I was the only one in the room who wouldn't spell his "him" with a capital "H." In fact, I told them that the Qur'an specifically requires belief in Jesus as an essential pre-condition of God's Graceful Salvation. The only difference is that Muslims honestly don't believe he's God. But the most important thing I told them, at least from my perspective, was that despite our different beliefs about him, our different versions of Jesus were equally real to us, all the same.

And even though I couldn't help pointing out that the Muslim Jesus was actually much closer to the beliefs of the earliest Christians than their own "post-Trinitarianist" versions were -- and that it's actually Christians who are guilty of being "Monolithic" -- I also reassured them that it's OK for them to be "Monolithic." Because "Monolithic" isn't actually an insult either.

Yes, it's sometimes meant as an insult, a popular non-Muslim conceit that pretends Muslims all have to believe exactly the same things, often focusing on some of the most "objectionable" options out there, when the truth is Muslims are likely even more diverse than they are.
That's not to say that there aren't some Muslims who can be pretty specific about exactly what Muslims must believe, often getting themselves into arguments with equally monolithic but dogmatically different Muslims. However, they are monolithic for the same reason some Christians are, and it's a good one. Because we all believe -- at least to some extent -- that we MUST be "right," for the sake of our immortal souls. Because if we're not "right," then what certainty can we have regarding the outcome of God's evaluation of our lives, come Judgment Day?

Now personally, I don't think that's the right place for us to be, regardless of which faith we're following: certainly from the Muslim perspective, putting yourself ahead of God, by thinking you can control Him by believing certain things about Him, is actually one of the biggest sins in all of Islam. And I don't think Christians -- at least if they stopped to think about it -- could be completely comfortable with that proposition either.

Throughout my own faith journey, I've been wrong about so many things so many times that I've frankly lost count, despite the fact that I've been convinced I've been absolutely "right" at the time regardless. Belief's a funny thing that way: given sufficient motivation, people can convince themselves to believe pretty much anything, and once we do we become equally convinced that makes it true, and makes that matter. Until about 20 years ago, when I made the rather impudent request that God grant me wisdom. And strangely enough since that time I've come to understand that being "right" doesn't matter so much: all I have to be is a humble servant of God.

That's why I think this "winner takes all" approach to religious believing we've all become convinced is "right" is the wrong way to approach evangelism, no matter what we're professing, and the reason why is one of the main reasons I've chosen to approach our Creator along the path of Islam. Because Muslims believe (at least we're supposed to) that life is a journey on a path ordained by our Creator, to teach us what we have to know. And if we're facing in the right direction towards Him, and honestly seeking to find Him, then He's the One who's responsible for getting us there.

We don't begin that journey perfect, and we don't even end up perfect: perfection is one characteristic that belongs solely to God. And that pertains even to things like religious belief: because it's our intention that matters. But that goes ALL ways: if Christians believe they're on the right path, then fixing them is God's problem, not mine.

That's not to say we're not supposed to be part of each other's faith's journeys, because we are, and if we believe we're created by a God as powerful as the God of Abraham then we have to admit that's because that's what's meant to be. Remember, God's in control of destiny. But is it possible that God put us here, not to recreate other believers in our own images, but instead to live and learn and grow alongside them not despite our differences, but because of them? And do you think He might have given us so many different directions to approach Him from to teach us to take ourselves a little less seriously?

Ask yourself: Do you do more good for God by telling other people they're wrong, or by doing right by them and living right yourself? Because I think the obvious answer makes all our different "good news" something that's actually good news for everyone.

Jesus told his followers -- and this might be a good point to remind Muslims and Christians both that we each look forward to following him when he comes back, whether we capitalize those "H"s or not -- to "make believers of everyone," but throughout his own ministry he consistently mocked anyone who focused to much on exactly what those beliefs should be.

Muhammad, on the other hand commended Jewish laws and lessons for Jews, and Christian laws and lessons for Christians. In fact, in the Quran God told Muhammad he couldn't make anyone Muslim no matter how much he wanted to. Instead, He told him to strive for peace, justice and freedom for everyone, and to leave the rest up to Him.

We've all grown quite skilled at promoting our own faith systems, and at dismantling the faiths of others, at least to our own satisfaction, but to what purpose? Believe me that you'll never convince a "true-believer" of any stripe to abandon their path by arguing with them. In any conflict between our faiths, faith alone itself is diminished. And like the old saying goes "a tooth for a tooth leaves all our gums uselessly bleeding, and an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind."

Our faiths all profess to make us better for the sake of Them-Who-Made-Us, and although we've all got our bin Ladens and our Torquemadas, we've also all got our St. Francis of Assisis and our Abdul Sattar Eidhis, and our miracles that prove God loves us as well.

To my own certain knowledge, if followed with fidelity any faith makes you better, and all our final outcomes belong solely to our shared, sole, loving, merciful, just Creator. Pretending otherwise is just marketing: promoting one of our faiths by promising something that's not ours to sell in the first place. But if we can make them all do what they're made to do for us individually, then we can make them all work together for all our sakes too. And leave what's up to God up to God.

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