Equipping disciples in pluralistic suburbs

Many of you are no doubt familiar with the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus gathers his disciples to him and says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

During the Christendom era Western Christians typically understood this “great commission” as a call to overseas mission and the support thereof. Now, however, many Christians live in cities where Christendom is a retreating memory and “the nations” have moved into the neighbourhood. What does faithfulness to the great commission look like in such circumstances? How do we equip disciples for engaging with the nations in the west?

It was recently suggested to me that, given it is difficulty of sharing our faith with our Hindus and Muslims simultaneously, that we should focus more broadly on equipping disciples for mission “in pluralism.” I can appreciate why this sounds sensible, especially for time impoverished churches, but I think this is a mistake and I’ll tell you why. Through experience I have found it is equivalent to suggesting that, in order to speak to our French and Chinese neighbours, we should just learn the universal language of Esperanto because its simpler and easier than learning both French and Chinese. Simpler maybe, but don’t be surprise if you just end up talking to yourself. My question is, how many “native” Esperanto speakers have you ever met? I bet you haven’t because they don’t exist. Esperanto is a constructed, rootless language. It is no path to understanding native languages rooted in living, messy community.

The truth is, different religions and different seekers must be understood in their particularity or not very well at all. Moreover, it needs to be recognize that pluralism is not as a thing in itself but as a juxtaposition of things. Pluralism can only be understood by wrestling with juxtapositions in all their particularity. In short, there are no shortcuts.


5 thoughts on “Equipping disciples in pluralistic suburbs

  1. Many ignorant people describe Esperanto as “failed” – other ignorant people say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.
    Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however. As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby. More recently this international language was used to address the United Nations in Bonn.
    During a short period of 125 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook and Google translate recently added to its prestigious list of 64 languages.
    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.
    Esperanto is a living language – see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670
    Their new online course http://www.lernu.net has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can’t be bad 🙂


  2. My question is, how many “native” Esperanto speakers have you ever met? I have met about a dozen, but I have met hundreds of fluent speakers. You write that “Esperanto is a constructed, rootless language.” Well … yes. And that is its strength, that it does not belong solely to any one nation or group of nations. You write that (it) “is no path to understanding native languages rooted in living, messy community.” Perhaps, that’s right. It is certainly a route to getting to know people who speak languagers other than your own. I have used Esperanto to share views with people from France and China.


  3. Without a better understanding the context and intent of the original suggestion, it’s hard for me to evaluate it or your response to it.
    Personally, I think the biggest problem with evangelism is that far too many would-be evangelists tend to consider it a process of lectures rather than a process of dialogue. That leads to results that, to put it mildly, aren’t pretty. Real evangelism requires mutual understanding, and that involves listening on the part of the evangelist as well as the evangelized, rather than the far too common mentality of “me evangelist, you heathen, now listen and be grateful.”
    To be honest, I’ve seen a lot of that thinking in very badly done “How to witness to people who are X” methods, where X can be a religious group, a liberal party, a sexual minority, or anything else. Such methods often involve having a fellow Christian “expert” explain what X is all about and what it’s like (and what it’s flaws are and how they can be utilized in evangelistic spiels). Said experts’ actual knowledge of the subject can range from fairly accurate (provided one remembers that X is not a monolith and there tends to be diversity of thought and experience among its members) to total fabrications with no basis in reality. This information is then applied to “conversations” with real people who don’t always fit the neat patterns of the information offered. Things fall apart.
    Now, I’m sure there’s a lot one can learn about the specifics of X that would improve dialogue with its members, and that’s certainly worth learning about. But given the way evangelism is too often approached, I do think that the basic universal principles — those idea about effective communication that apply not just to X, but Y, Z, and Q as well — should be underscored as well.
    Of course, I also think that the most basic principle that needs to be stressed — and it is universal — is that if you really want to know what Person who is a member of X believes, how they feel, and what they need, your best bet is to ask that Person.


  4. While I would not suggest bringing Muslims and Hindus for purposes of evangelism, if you do meet them together you might learn a great deal about what they think from their interactions with each other.
    I once went to a seminar on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students. I was then an Anglican, and I learnt a great deal about Orthodoxy from observing the reactions of a group of Lutheran students from East Germany (then a separate country)


  5. What a rich dialogue about dialoguing! I think we can all, religions of the world, stay filial and rooted in our “faiths of origin” and see the beauty in other traditions–through dialogue, and seeing communities and cultures within the contexts they originate–rather than a watered-down version we may imagine. I love the contemplative tradition in Christianity because, unlike perhaps a lesser spoken dialect (as your example is reflecting), it is language spoken by all traditions in some form or fashion–the language of silence. What I see in my silence with God may have different shapes and forms than my Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist neighbors but it is a premise we can share in together…and then the verbal understanding can grow from there. Never diminishing our own “faith of origin” of Christianity, or watering it down, but in understanding the contextual richness of other faiths we can, also, see our own with new and reverent eyes.
    Thank you for your great discussion!
    Prayers and blessings to you,
    TB Pasquale @ http://www.crookedmystic.com


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