"My Purpose is Not To Convert You"
Not too long ago, I watched a television documentary about the increasing number of practicing Muslims in small-town America. At one point in the film, a mainline Protestant pastor visited the local imam in his home. At the outset of their conversation, the pastor made his intentions clear:
“My purpose in meeting you is not any sort of conversion. I respect you and your beliefs. You’re not going to change, and I’m not going to change.”
There is so much to unpack in those three sentences that I hardly know where to begin. Interestingly, the imam restated the last of those three sentences, offering his total agreement to framing the discussion this way.
“I respect you and your beliefs.”
Let’s begin with the second sentence first: “I respect you and your beliefs.”
The pastor is right to respect the imam, if for nothing else than the fact that the imam is a fellow human being created in the image of God. It’s the image of God in humanity that separates us from the animal world and gives us intrinsic value and a unique vocation.
When speaking about “respecting beliefs,” we should tread little more carefully. Most of the time, when pastors and church leaders speak of “respecting someone else’s beliefs,” they mean “respecting the sincerity with which a person holds to a belief.” In that sense, it’s fine to speak of “respecting another’s beliefs.” But in the more literal sense, “respecting someone else’s beliefs” can be foolish.
If my seven-year-old son were to watch Peter Pan and then decide to jump off the house and fly through the neighborhood, it would be ridiculous of me to say, “I respect your belief.” I might respect the tenacity of his childlike faith, but I’d be the first to say, “That’s silly.” I can respect my son as a human made in the image of God; in fact, I can love him as a father should love a son, and yet still point out the fallacy of his belief.
In the same way, Christians need to distinguish between (rightly) showing respect to people and (wrongly) advocating respect for any and every idea that someone else believes. I can respect a Muslim friend without at all respecting the Muslim view of the afterlife, or the Muslim explanation of the cross of Christ, or the Muslim idea of works-righteousness. Such beliefs are not worthy of respect because they are wrong, even if the people who hold these beliefs are valuable, precious individuals made in the image of God.
“My purpose in meeting is not any sort of conversion”
More troublesome than conflating respect for people with respect for one’s beliefs is the first statement made by the pastor: “My purpose in meeting is not any sort of conversion.”
As a Christian committed to the teachings of Jesus, I cannot understand how this statement is anything but an abdication of the responsibility Jesus gave His disciples after His resurrection: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Notice the absence of any qualifiers. Jesus didn’t say: “Go and make disciples among the nominally religious in your area.” Or “Go and make disciples of those who don’t believe in any God at all.” Or “Stay within your church walls and make disciples there.” No… Jesus’ command is crystal clear. He is the King who possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. When we place the Great Commission together with the stark claims of Christ’s exclusivity, we see just how wrongheaded it is to say that we have no purpose to convert an unbeliever.
Of course, this pastor will be lauded by many in society today. He seems so open-minded and tolerant. “My purpose is not to convert you,” he says, eliciting a Whew! from the filmmakers as the tension in the room immediately subsides.
But when the pastor’s statement is placed within the entire context of the Scriptures and what Jesus Himself says about salvation, it’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t want you to be with me in the new heavens and new earth.” It’s a tacit condemnation to eternal perdition. There are all sorts of implications to saying such a thing:
- My purpose is not to introduce you to Jesus. (You’re getting along just fine without Him after all.)
- My purpose is not to show you how to escape eternal judgment. (I’m not taking Jesus seriously when He talks about hellfire and all that stuff.)
- My purpose is not to worship side by side with you, singing the praises of the Lamb whose blood was shed for you. (You stay in your mosque, and we’ll stay in our church, thank you very much.)
Then there’s the most troublesome statement of all. The imam and the pastor both state very quickly, “You’re not going to change, and I’m not going to change.”
Now, there’s no surprise that the imam would say such a thing. But for a minister of the gospel – the most explosive, transformational news ever unleashed in our world – to say “You’re not going to change” is an explicit denial of the gospel’s power to change the human heart. There’s no faith here that God can work miracles. No faith that God can so work in a heart that its affections and beliefs shift dramatically.
What if the pastor applied this logic to the alcoholic who comes to him for counseling. “Well Joe, you’re not going to change.” Or to the man who is on the brink of destroying his marriage with pornography, “Sorry, Sam. You’re not going to change.”
The Truly Inclusive Gospel Message
The gospel is for everyone. It is a radically inclusive message. Though the world balks at the exclusive claims of Christ, we rush forward with the inclusive news that He is Savior of all the world. If I fail to proclaim this message, I am not really following Jesus. Instead, I’m just cloaking 21st century ideas in traditional Christian garb.
What would have been the better way for this pastor to handle his conversation with the imam? It would have been better to say something like this:
I respect you as a person made in the image of God. I respect your right to hold to any faith that you choose. I would never coerce you or force my religious beliefs upon you, as such a practice would detract from the truth that you, like me, are made in the image of God. And yet, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am commanded to share the gospel. When the time comes for me to seek to persuade you to follow Jesus, it is not out of a heart of oppression or desire for control, but out of love and concern. Since I truly believe the gospel offers hope for all humanity, I cannot keep it to myself. The gospel is too precious and you are too valuable for me to keep silent.