A Warning Concerning Religious Categories

Americans love our categories. We love our boxes and labels. Even today, with the postmodern push away from classification, we Western thinkers still organize information by placing “like items” together in taxonomies. Categories can be helpful to understand certain generalizations about a set of items, ideas, or people. However, categories also obscure information. Every time we lump two like things together, we focus on the similarities and overlook the differences. This is particularly true when we view something as an outsider.

We need to recognize this tendency to generalize in missions and evangelism. Our world is full of cultures, beliefs, religions, and worldviews. The sheer number of options when it comes to a belief system are dizzying. In the past, however, your average church-going Christian in the US would only run across one of two different belief systems. A generation ago, there were Protestants, Catholics, and not-so-religious people. Those in the Protestant camp tended to be either committed, confessional Christians or nominal Christians (in name only) and part of a larger Christian cultural ethos. When it came to sharing the gospel, these were the predominant categories of thought.

Nowadays, our communities are filling with radically different worldviews. Our new neighbor is almost as likely to be Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim as they are nominal Christian. This, of course, causes us “church folk” to ask questions about these new belief systems cropping up around us. The temptation, of course, is to lump everyone into the same category, as though Hindus and Muslims are the same kind of different from us. To be clear, that is a terrible idea. Furthermore, we are called to love everyone, to extend mercy to everyone, no matter how different they are.

Not only are Hindus and Muslims very different, we need to know those differences if we are going to fulfill our responsibility to the Great Commission in our own communities today. In fact, it is not enough to categorize someone by a major world religion. When it comes to evangelism, these kinds of categorization are unhelpful. In order to proclaim the gospel clearly, we must do the hard work of understanding the person with whom we are sharing it. People talk different, they think different, and they believe different. While these differences do not change the truth of the gospel (it is the same news for all people), they certainly do affect the way we explain the gospel.

Ask questions and learn about their worldview.

All people who say they are Muslim do not believe the same thing. For that matter, all people who say they are Christian do not believe the same thing! Just take a look at this chart of Muslim sects and branches. A better approach than asking someone their religion is asking them the right questions to understand their worldview. This way, you avoid making assumptions about their beliefs based on your incomplete understanding of their religious category. Here are some questions you can ask someone about their religion and find out what they actually believe.

Ask questions and learn about their culture.

Worldview and culture are hard to separate. Paul Hiebert claims worldview is the foundational narrative on which a person’s culture rests. If we take that view, then culture is a group’s manifestations of a shared worldview. Everyone has a worldview, and everyone is part of a culture. In order to share the gospel effectively, we need to consider a person’s culture. We can no longer assume people think the same way we do. Instead, learn about someone’s culture by asking these five questions.

Learn to share the gospel in multiple ways.

Finally, we must never forget that our purpose in missions is to witness to the good news of Christ and his kingdom. The gospel is a message to be told, news to be proclaimed, and our task as Christian is more than getting to know people. Our work in missions is not done when we think we have figured out someone’s worldview or culture. It is not enough to know what they believe. It is not even enough to become their friends. Our task is to share the grace we have been given by sharing the message of redemption.

Gospel proclamation is done best when we understand two things: (1) the text of Scripture and (2) the context of the mission. Most of this post has been about the context. Our mission is accomplished in interaction with people. We need to understand what those people believe, how they think, and how their culture impacts their understanding. However, we also need to understand the message of the Bible concerning Christ’s work and how our culture shapes our understanding of it. There are many ways to explain the gospel, and we need to be comfortable with both its narrative and themes. Check out this article for a place to start.

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