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A Pentecostal Perspective on Evangelism and Religious Pluralism: The Right Moment for an Important and Unprecedented Document, by Tony Richie

The early response to “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” has been mostly positive. Of course, almost everyone can see the need for addressing interfaith conflict, and the role that issues of conversion and evangelism play in that scenario.4 Many seem almost amazed that such diverse Christian groups were ready, willing, and able to work so closely for so long and, of course, to succeed in producing a unanimous statement. Some misunderstand. For example, Religion Today Summaries (June 30, 2011) put it like this: “Top 3 Bodies in Christianity Issue Evangelism Rules.” Of course, “recommendations” and “rules” are not the same at all. This kind of oversight sets up potential problems. No one is trying to impose rules on anyone’s evangelism. (Below you will notice that Chris Norton makes the same mistake.) The World Council of Churches press release put it better: “Christians reach broad consensus on appropriate missionary conduct.” This news release is also informative and balanced (http://www.oikoumene.org/en/news/news-management/eng/a/article/1634/christians-reach-broad-co.html).

Then Francis X. Rocca (Religion News Service, June 30, 2011), in “Ecumenical Accord Reached on Proselytizing: Did You Know?” suggests this historic document is little more than “the latest attempt to assuage sometimes violent tensions over proselytizing in non-Christian societies”. He offered expert testimony that though “not a full-throated apology for such practices, the injunctions are ‘tantamount to an admission that they have been going on.’” While to be expected, these kinds of comments don’t do justice to the strong fiber and vibrant substance of the overall work. Nevertheless, Rocca clearly recognizes the need for peaceful relations among world religions. And that may be the main thing here.

Christianity Today’s Chris Norton’s “Top Evangelical, Catholic, and Mainline Bodies Issue Evangelism Rules” (6/29/2011) is especially interesting. Before looking at it, I will mention that I’m not happy about his exclusion of Pentecostals from the title and the task. The major news releases from participating bodies stressed the inclusion not only of Evangelicals but also specifically of Pentecostals. One of the original organizers and leaders of the whole project, Hans Ucko, told me personally that he considered one of the major accomplishments to be the inclusion of Evangelicals and Pentecostals. While in my North American context I consider myself both an Evangelical and a Pentecostal, these are not necessarily synonymous terms. In many parts of the world they may have quite different meanings.5 Christianity Today should’ve been more specific. Yet it is important to note that Pentecostal involvement was more informal and less official than, say members of the WEA, who formally and officially endorsed their participants and the outcome of their work. Kudos to WEA! Right now, too many Pentecostals are still struggling with stepping up to the plate to take their place at bat in the critical “game” of living and serving in a multi-religious world. Accordingly, Pentecostal involvement with this significant document was mostly at the individual level, although with awareness and encouragement of organizational leadership.6

Engaging the Issues

One of the things I like about Norton’s article is that it does honestly engage the document and wrestle with the issues it raises. His subtitle, “Missiologists applaud unity effort, but note what’s missing and what will raise eyebrows” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/juneweb-only/evangelismrules.html) sums up its substance well. Not to quibble (again!) about words in the title/subtitle, but I would mention we need to understand “unity effort” in the sense of a united effort. In other words, this was not an effort toward unity, but an effort arising out of unity. One thing that’s most impressive about this process and the document it eventually produced is that fact. An underlying unity already in place made it possible. Admittedly, it was sometimes stretched; but, I also think it was strengthened. Those who don’t think ecumenism can be effective need to think again. Along that line, Norton does a good job of explaining the significance of the release of “Recommendations for Conduct.” As an Evangelical myself, I gladly note that his article rightly points out, from Kevin Mannoia, professor of Ministry at Azusa Pacific University, and former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, that Evangelical involvement in this process signals that Evangelicals are beginning to take their proper place in the broader Christian context—and are even willing to address and discuss interreligious dialogue. To me, that’s a real plus. He also quotes a former professor of mine, George Hunter, dean of the School of World Missions at Asbury Theological Seminary, who calls attention to what’s not in the document. Notably, Hunter thinks the omission of any statement on the sacraments was a major concession by the Catholics. While I can certainly see where he’s coming from, I don’t remember there being a big to-do about it in our work together. My impression is that most of us just thought we were talking about something else: namely, appropriate Christian behavior in doing the mission of the churches in religiously plural settings.

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Category: Ministry, Pneuma Review, Winter 2012

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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