The strategic importance of getting involved in cross-cultural witness right now!
If I had only realized…
We often learn some of life’s most important lessons through failure. And I’d like to begin by sharing with you one of my greatest failures-turned-lessons. Being in a position of leadership, I was heavily involved in my campus fellowship during my days in college. I genuinely wanted to see my campus be served and reached with the Gospel, and one day I aspired to take this radical message of love, sacrifice and redemption to the nations. But for the time being my focus was my campus – my very white, very American, very secular campus. During these years, I became acquainted with a young man from South Asia named Ismail. I think we connected because we had a lot in common. We were both sincere about our love for God and we both tried to be moral in an immoral setting. And on a college campus these days, that’s saying a lot! Ismail started our campus’ first Muslim Student Association. While I thought that was good for him, I never really even considered taking our relationship to the next level – serving him and modeling Christ for him – because I just figured there would be time for that “later.” But as is often the case, “later” never comes. So we remained surface-level friends throughout our careers in college, and parted ways after graduation. That was ten years ago, and I haven’t seen him since. I often wonder what became of Ismail. I wonder what could have been if I had simply understood the magnitude of the opportunity before me while I was in college. Now that I’ve spent time in Islamic countries like the one he came from, where alternative belief systems are harshly repressed, I realize the amazing opportunity I had to share Christ’s love with him when he was in a place of more “openness” in college.
A multifaceted door of opportunity
With more foreign students coming to study on college campuses in the West these days than ever before, I can’t help but realize that God is opening a multifaceted door to his followers. Firstly, it is a door of Gospel opportunity whereby many of these students hail from some of the world’s most Gospel resistant nations – places where open witness is not allowed. But here in the West, we’ve got the freedom to actually share our faith without fear of jail time or worse. What’s more, it is a fact that people are more open to alternative beliefs when they are in college than at any other time in their lives. To give you a picture of this door of Gospel opportunity, I recently had a great conversation about Jesus with a young man from Saudi Arabia while we walked across the quad of a campus in Boston. He told me he’d never even met a “real Christian” before, and that my words about being a follower of Jesus were an absolute novelty for him. One simple but purposeful five minute conversation had changed his entire perception of Jesus! We could have never had this conversation in his country.
Secondly, this multifaceted open door is one of field preparation and training for the future. What makes you think you are called to share the love of Jesus with people in Uzbekistan if you aren’t doing it with the Central Asians on your own campus? How can you expect to communicate the Gospel to a Muslim in a complex language like Arabic if you haven’t done it in English first? In this way, the influx of foreign students on Western campuses affords followers of Jesus in this generation unprecedented training opportunities for future ministry. You can arrive overseas with four years of pre-field experience and orientation that previous message bearers like Samuel Zwemer and Henry Martin could have only dreamed of!
Practical Applications… study, love, speak, pray
Assuming that you don’t want to repeat the failure I shared at the start of this article, and that you’re convinced of the strategic door of opportunity that God has opened on your campus – how can you respond practically?
The first thing I would advise is that you seriously study your own faith so that you know what and why you believe. Sharing your faith with a secular or non-religious person is one thing, but sharing your faith with someone from a highly developed and sometimes hostile belief system is completely another! People from certain countries have been “taught” about the supposed evils and shortfalls of Christianity from a young age, thus they are primed and ready for a religious encounter. Most Westerners though, have very little understanding of other religions because of the separation of church and state. Because of this fact, many a well-meaning follower of Jesus has been embarrassed or even led astray by a more astute follower of another world religion on campus. Therefore, at the very least you’d do well to begin reading campus classics like Know Why You Believe and Know What You Believe, by Paul Little. Along those lines, and for the slightly more ambitious, something like, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, by F.F. Bruce or Simply Christian, by N.T. Wright will go a long way in solidifying your faith for the days ahead! Once you know what and why you believe, it is really important to have some understanding of what other people believe. Two of the best surveys of our multi-religious world that I know of are, Neighboring Faiths and A Tapestry of Faiths, by Wilfred Corduan. Finally (this is the last reading application, I promise!), you should take the general level of knowledge of how to engage a multi-religious world that Corduan’s books describe and specialize a bit further by studying the beliefs of those you plan to engage. While there are many good books out there, the only comprehensive one that I know of that covers the bases, in the format of a roundtable dialogue, is Timothy Tennent’s Christianity at the Religious Roundtable: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. If you read and truly digest most or all of the aforementioned books, along with a steady diet of the Bible in your daily life, you will be sufficiently prepared for any “faith shaking” conversations that you might encounter in your budding cross-cultural campus witnessing endeavors.
The next step in becoming involved in cross-cultural witness on campus is pretty obvious. If you don’t have any friends from another culture, you can’t be a cross-cultural witness. I don’t need to tell you how to befriend people – you’ve had about twenty years of practice doing that already. And contrary to popular belief, befriending people from other cultures is really no different than befriending folks from your own culture. It really comes down to one word – love. People want to be friends with others who they know genuinely love and care about them. I think a lot of followers of Jesus are afraid when befriending non-believers because they don’t want to be perceived as “having an agenda” (toward conversion) in the relationship. That’s a legitimate but unnecessary fear. Why do I say this? Because of course you have an agenda in the relationship. The agenda is simply this – to love people like Jesus did – nothing more, nothing less. You don’t need to worry about trying to “convert” your friends to any religion. You simply need to worry about making sure you are loving the people in your life as Jesus would. The rest will fall into place. As you build genuine, loving relationships with people from other countries and faith traditions, opportunities for the light of the Gospel to shine through will naturally occur. When a boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with them, that’s a chance for you to demonstrate that Jesus fills that basic human need for relationship in your life. When a friend or family member from back home dies, that’s a chance for you to comfort them like Jesus would. When they are stressed about their grades because of family pressure to achieve in their culture, that’s a chance for you to live out Philippians 4:6-7 and demonstrate your lack of anxiety or concern for “wordly” things. It’s amazing how supposedly big objections to things like the Trinity or the atonement are forgotten when people have truly experienced the love of Christ through his followers.
While love is primarily an action verb, it also means speaking truth at times. Although it sounds shocking in our postmodern, pluralistic world, all paths to God are actually not essentially the same. And to shy away from the distinctive features of our faith does not serve us, other people, or the Lord Jesus very well. Therefore, I’d encourage you to look for ways to have positive dialogue (not debate) with people of other faiths on campus. Almost every school these days has some kind of Muslim, Hindu, or other religious student group. Why not approach them with the idea of seriously but graciously engaging each other in dialogue? A great resource for this type of endeavor is a book by Bruce McDowell and Anees Zaka called, Muslims and Christians at the Table. In it, the authors outline what I think is one of the best formats for cross-cultural religious dialogue in the North American setting. However, if pulling off a formal dialogue between your respective fellowships is a bit too much, you can surely arrange to meet in small groups where you can listen to their beliefs and then share some of yours. Remember the young man from Saudi Arabia I met in Boston? He went to school in the West, around plenty of Christians, but had never actually heard the word of truth spoken before. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for us to find creative ways of speaking the truth that we live in love with our friends from other cultures.
The last practical application that I will share with you for becoming a cross-cultural witness right now is this: if you don’t understand the importance of prayer in cross-cultural witnessing, then you really need to read this paragraph carefully! I have spent my life sharing the Gospel with people from every background and faith (or no faith) tradition. By far, the easiest to share with are the secular or non-religious types that abound on our campuses today. They often don’t have a well thought-out or comprehensive worldview, and their “arguments” are quite easily demolished with simple logic or even experience. But I’ve got to tell you, when you try to share the Gospel with someone from another major world religion that includes a fairly coherent, comprehensive worldview, coupled with all the cultural and familial pressures to hold onto that particular religion, you are up against more than anyone can handle. Thus, while it is true that only the Holy Spirit can enlighten someone to faith in Christ, this truth is far more evident when you are engaged in cross-cultural witnessing! Therefore, you’ve got to learn to pray. Seeing fruit in people’s lives is hard enough even if you do pray regularly. You can forget it if you don’t. It has been said that those who don’t pray aren’t convinced that it actually works. If we really believe that prayer works, that it is a mysterious and essential part of the witnessing process, then we would do it often. You should also know that I am not talking about your average, run of the mill, “Oh Lord please save Ahmed” prayers. I am talking about an impassioned, desperate cry of your heart to a sovereign God who alone has the power to do the impossible – to change Ahmed’s heart from stone to flesh, to open his eyes to the wonder of Christ. Now is a great time to learn about the kind of prayer life that you will need if you are planning to serve God among the forgotten some day. Many message bearers arrive on the field and discover that they are not prepared for the spiritual battle of winning Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists to Christ. If you learn how to fight the spiritual battle in prayer now while you are on campus at the University of Kansas, you’ll be a long way down the road toward being a more effective witness someday when you are walking across the campus of a place like the University of Khartoum.
Obviously, this article was not written with the experience of a student from a Christian college in view. If you do attend a Christian college, it’s not likely that your campus has an abundance of Muslims or Hindus around to befriend! But this should not discourage you from actively seeking other avenues to engage and befriend people of other faiths in your wider community. Most American cities these days have some kind of Islamic Association or the like. It is my experience that the people who run such organizations are more than happy to allow you to come and be as much a part of their activities as you want to. For a better idea of how to go about befriending folks off campus, please contact me via email. I’d love to help you get started.