by James Blackhall.
One of the sessions we lead at the St Philip’s Centre for Methodist Churches is ‘Hospitality, Service and Proclamation’. The title is taken from Revd Dr Tom Wilson’s book of the same name.[i] This session raises interesting questions about what we do when we do interfaith work that also has wider application for everything else we do as Christians. One question I particularly enjoy exploring as I lead this session is around when proclamation is appropriate. This to me is not just a question of good interfaith relations, although in the context in which I work that is the primary discussion, but it is also a discussion about the core of the Christian faith. We are called to make disciples and to spread the message- yet there are times when direct proclamation is not appropriate. One of the questions that often comes up as people think about this is about the ethical implications of proclamation in settings of providing service such as “is it appropriate to share our faith when running a foodbank?”
The Methodist Church is committed to being a ‘a growing, evangelistic, justice-seeking, inclusive Church of gospel people who speak of, listen for, and live out the goodness of God so that more people become disciples of Jesus Christ, and already committed Methodists experience a deepening of their faith’[ii]. This gives a broad definition of evangelism that includes social action, hearing others as well as directly proclaiming the faith. Yet, without proclaiming the faith we could end up answering Paul’s questions, ‘how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?’ (Romans 10:14)… with a blank look.
Whatever our view of interfaith relations and whether we should call people to believe in Jesus or celebrate their own faith we can all agree that ‘Christianity is a faith that has a message of good news to share, which includes speaking out the good news of Jesus Christ, sharing what he has done in our lives’[iii] This is something I am passionate about- this is why I am a Local Preacher. I believe that ‘The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced’ (Psalm 126:3) and I want to share that with others. Yet, when I’m in an interfaith setting learning about others’ faith, and celebrating what can be seen of God in their lives, it can be very inappropriate to proclaim a message in any great detail.
I do believe that we are constantly proclaiming when we speak of our faith. When I join dialogues with people of other faiths, just as they proclaim what is good from their faith, so too I naturally proclaim my faith that Jesus is Lord. I also naturally proclaim what my faith means to me and why being a Christian is such an important part of my life- just as their faith is an important part of theirs. Yet true Christian proclamation should never come from a place of ‘superiority’[iv] as it is important that there is mutual respect and sharing which is foundational to being able to share faith together. For the Christian this proclamation will always point to Jesus.[v]
I often ask groups if proclamation in an interfaith setting is acceptable and many will often say no. This is because of a wish to avoid offence, wanting to show respect and a reluctance. When I discuss what proclamation is to me, and how we can share our faith in a way that is mutual, then some groups review their response and agree that we do often proclaim even if we would not consider ourselves evangelising. Perhaps that is why Nkuna concludes that ‘evangelism and interfaith dialogue are distinct but interrelated as authentic evangelism takes place within the context of the dialogue of life’[vi]. This evangelism is recognised to include words and proclamation.
I wonder whether as Methodists we are good at hospitality and service but perhaps not always as good at confidently proclaiming our faith? As our God for All strategy takes its place it is hoped that we will become more confident at sharing our faith and what that means for us- whatever our theological positions. Sometimes we will need to think seriously about the appropriateness – interfaith dialogue has taught me to think about when it is right to make certain truth claims and when it is right to listen; thinking about foodbanks has helped me to think through when it is right to serve and when is it right to speak. Thinking about hospitality, and especially being a guest, has made me think about when is it rude and counterproductive to proclaim. Yet, we do ‘have a gospel to proclaim’ as the hymn said and I hope that all Christians will feel confident enough in their identity to be able to share it.
[i] Wilson, T., 2019. Hospitality, Service, Proclamation. Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd.
[ii] The God for All Strategy found at https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/19181/conf-2020-4-evangelism-and-growth.pdf
[iii] Wilson, T., 2019. Hospitality, Service, Proclamation. Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Pg 2
[iv] Nkuna, V G. ” Convergence of Evangelism and Interfaith Dialogue:A Missional Refection.” E-Journal of Religious and Theological Studies (ERATS) 7, 10 October 2010: pp178-179, available at https://www.academia.edu/67664475/Convergence_of_Evangelism_and_Interfaith_Dialogue_A_Missional_Reflection, pg182
[v] Ibid pg182
[vi] Ibid pg 187