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Church groups offer guidelines for evangelizing

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As attempts at conversion go, Robert Fowler's experience was one of the worst.

In December 2008, Fowler was one of two Canadian diplomats kidnapped by Islamic militants in the African country of Niger. For four months, they suffered various deprivations, including poor living conditions, constant anxiety and lack of decent food. They never knew from one day to the next if it would be their last.

Throughout it all, their captors tried to convert them to Islam. The day they were freed, one of the militants named Omar reminded them of their efforts.

As Fowler recounted in his book, A Season in Hell, Omar told him that "on the Day of Judgment, I needed to be very clear in my meeting with my maker that he, Omar, had tried valiantly -- if unsuccessfully -- to guide me to the straight and true path."

Needless to say, Fowler didn't convert. No big surprise -- kidnapping people and threatening them with death isn't the best way to win new followers.

The methods tried by Fowler's captors are obviously way over the top. But what is the proper way for people of faith to try to evangelize others? A coalition of three of the world's largest church groups has come up with an answer for Christians.

Titled Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct, the document was released last summer by the World Council of Churches, the Vatican and the World Evangelical Alliance. Together, the three groups represent over 90 per cent of the world's Christians.

The document has three sections. The first lays out the biblical foundations for the church's mission.

The second section outlines 12 principles Christians are called to follow in witnessing about their faith. These include: acting in God's love, imitating the life and teachings of Christ, conducting themselves with integrity, showing acts of service and justice, exercising discernment in ministries of healing, rejecting violence, promoting freedom of religion, showing mutual respect and solidarity with people of other faiths, showing respect for all cultures, not speaking untruthfully about other religions, not rushing people into making a decision to change their religion, and building relationships of respect and trust with people of different religions.

The document includes a recommendation for all Christians, church bodies, mission organizations and agencies to study and apply its contents.

A few of the principles caught my attention. One is not using acts of service, such as emergency relief and food aid, education and health care, as ways to evangelize people of other religions.

"The exploitation of situations of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach," the document says, adding "Christians should denounce and refrain from offering all forms of allurements, including financial incentives and rewards, in their acts of service."

In other words, assistance for people in need is to be given without any expectation -- Christians should help just because it's the right thing to do.

Also of interest is what the document calls "ministries of healing," an apparent reference to western evangelists who go to the developing world to offer faith-healing services.

Christians, the document states, are to "exercise discernment as they carry out these ministries, fully respecting human dignity and ensuring that the vulnerability of people and their need for healing are not exploited."

To put it another way, don't take advantage of sick people who are too poor to get medical attention in conventional ways.

Lastly, the document pushes open the door for interreligious understanding much wider when it encourages Christians to "acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good" in other religions. There is much we can learn from each other, it suggests.

For Canadian Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, the document is important at this time of rising tensions between Christians and people of other faiths, especially in the developing world.

"In some places, dynamic public witness to Jesus Christ has been accompanied by misunderstanding and tension," he says. "This document is a valuable resource... on how to best witness in ways faithful to the call of Christ and in line with the life and spirit of Jesus."

At the same time, he emphasizes that everyone has the right to share their faith -- and the right to change their beliefs and religion.

"In the marketplace of ideas, everyone should get the opportunity to share their perspectives," he states, noting t countries such as India and Pakistan are considering anti-conversion laws and in some Islamic countries, people can be executed for converting.

It's not just Christians who can benefit from the document's call for freedom to evangelize and freedom of religion, Tunnicliffe says.

"We're not just speaking up for Christians, but for all faiths," he says, adding some Muslims have told him they see the document as a good source of information and inspiration for creating their own guidelines.

Will the code make a difference? It's hard to say, as the three groups have no ability to police it and not every church or mission group will subscribe to it.

But anything that seeks to reduce friction between faith groups at a time when religious tensions are on the rise is welcome.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2012 J13

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