Community vs. Belief

Herbert Hoefer

Editorial Note: As an interesting follow up to Luther Engelbrecht’s article on the “Priesthood of ALL the Baptized,” fellow Indian missionary Dr. Herb Hoefer reflects on the importance of the community in the evangelization of people from other faiths. Herb is at present the regional secretary for India for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Religion as Community

I teach a course on “Issues between Islam and Christianity” for which I have a Muslim come several times to respond to students’ questions. The last time I taught it, the two Muslims who came wanted to spend some time with me after class. Toward the end of our discussion our major speaker asked me what was really on his mind, “What would it take for you to become a Muslim?” I was taken aback, of course, but I responded, “That Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.” What I’d like to write about in this brief article is his response to the return question, “What would it take for you to become a Christian?” He simply said, “My community.” In this exchange we see some fundamental differences between the nature of the Christian faith and the Muslim faith. In fact, these differences are true between Christianity and almost all other religions.

One difference is that Christianity is primarily a matter of individual belief, while other religions are primarily a matter of corporate identity. What are the beliefs required to be considered a true Muslim or Hindu or Jew or Buddhist or animist? They are very minimal, if any at all. Islam is the only other religion that mandates a confession of faith, but that confession is very minimal: “God is God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Even where corporate allegiance is required of a faithful member, as in Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologies, the focus is still on belief (in this case, belief in the divine character of the institution), rather than on identification with the church as one’s social community.

A second difference, then, is that Christianity is primarily a matter of vertical allegiance, while other religions are primarily a matter of horizontal allegiance. The emphasis in Christianity is a personal relationship to God in Christ. In other religions, however, the commitment is to one’s sociological community. It is through the community that one relates to God. One is a God-pleasing Muslim or Hindu or Jew by being a loyal participant in one’s religious community.

A third difference is that Christianity has placed great emphasis on developing and maintaining doctrinal correctness. However, for other religions doctrines are important and are argued over, but those differences do not generally disqualify them from being considered a member of the faith. Rather, one is disqualified if one fails to carry out one’s social obligations: in Hinduism one’s dharmic duties, in Islam one’s support of fellow Muslims, in Buddhism one’s compassion toward all living things, in Judaism one’s observance of the traditions, in animist societies one’s reverence for ancestors, etc.

Finally, there is a great difference in the meaning of religious festivals. Except in countries where the Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church is predominant, Christian festivals are events primarily confined to the church building. Among Protestant churches festivals themselves are very infrequent, and really only Christmas is celebrated extravagantly and socially.

In other religions, religious festivals are community events. They take place primarily out in the open, and they may go on for several days. I recall one person who decided not to convert from Hinduism to Christianity saying, “I just can’t give up all my festivals.” He enjoyed and thrived on the community celebrations of his religion.

Three Examples

I would illustrate this phenomenon of religion as community in three ways: invitation, self-identification and communalization.

When a Muslim invites someone to convert, s/he says, “Would you like to become a Muslim?” When a Christian invites someone to convert, s/he says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:31). Likewise, when one converts to Hinduism or Judaism or a Buddhist, one becomes a “Hindu,” “Jew” or “Buddhist.” Many believers in Christ around the world, however, are very comfortable speaking of their new faith as being a “follower of Jesus,” a “Messianic Jew,” or a “believer in Christ.” In these other religions conversion is joining a specific sociological community. In Christianity it is espousal of a specific personal belief.

Another illustration: If you ask an American Muslim, “Who are you?” s/he will answer, “I am a Muslim.” If you ask an American Christian, s/he will typically answer, “I am an American.” The Christian’s self-identification is with his nationality, the Muslim’s is with his religion. Their social identity is with their religion. The Christian’s social identity, on the other hand, is with his/her nationality or tribe. S/He is an American or German or Hutu or Masai who happens to be a Christian by belief.

Third, take the example of the Christians of the organized churches in India. If you ask them, “Who are you?” they will say, “I am a Christian.” They are in a land of communal identity according to one’s religion, so Christianity in the organized church also has become communalized. The India constitution and legal framework place everybody in some communal group. Christians of the organized churches, then, are an officially recognized separate community with their own civil laws. When one is baptized and put onto church rolls, one legally changes sociological community.

If you ask Hindus in India, “Who are you?” they will typically answer by their social community also: “I am a Brahmin or a Nadar or Oriya.” If you ask, “What is your belief?” then they would respond, “I am a Hindu.” Those who are “Jesu bhaktas” (“devotees of Jesus”) within Hinduism would say, “I am a believer in Jesus.” In India Christianity has become communalized.

Christianity as Faith

What are the implications for our evangelistic work? Humans are social creatures. Most people dry on the vine when their connection to the whole is fractured. This is especially true in non-Western societies, where one’s whole identity is determined by one’s place and family of birth. What do we do when we know the church will not become a new community for the convert? I remember one of our Muslim missionaries in India stating in exasperation over the plight of a few Muslim converts, “Until we can provide a community for people, we should not try to convert them.”

In a recent article in Mission Frontiers (“Planting Churches: Learning the Hard Way,” [Jan.–Feb. 2009], 16–18), Tim and Rebecca Lewis relate how their evangelistic work in a Muslim country in North Africa made no progress as long as they attempted to extract converts from their natural community:

After 15 years we had learned the hard way that—in communal cultures—we couldn’t plant a lasting church by gathering random believers into new groups. It didn’t matter if they were contextualized or not, multi-cultural or mono-cultural, after a few months or years these groups would fall apart. (p. 18)

Potential converts in these major religions realize very well that conversion will mean the loss of their community—as our Muslim speaker expressed. In all of these religions there is a great respect for Jesus Christ. There is great respect for the social ministries of the church as followers of Jesus. There is great respect for the power of prayer in Jesus’ Name. There is great respect for the saints of the church, both historical and local. However, the great stumbling block to conversion is the loss of one’s community.

Christianity does not claim to be a new social community. It claims to present the way for people to enter into a personal, saving relationship with God. It is not a religion that details social obligations. It simply says, quite vaguely: “Love God; love your neighbor.” In all this the convert from a communal religion feels totally at sea: Where is my community? What are my duties? To whom am I accountable? Who will be there for me in my needs? Who will take my daughters in marriage?

Indeed, there are amazingly strong individuals of faith who withstand all the pressures and uncertainties. However, we cannot expect such heroism of new converts—sacrifices far beyond what mature Christians have to experience. When others see how difficult it is for new converts, they also will strongly hesitate and warn others.

Faith within Community

I’ve only seen these obstacles overcome in two ways. One is through mass movements. In these instances whole communities come into the church and form a sizeable portion, if not a majority, in their communities. Historically, the vast majority of conversions have come in this way. Of course, this is the approach that Dr. Donald McGavran advocated for many years. All of these social obstacles are overcome, and people can feel free to follow the leading of their hearts. The church, then, becomes a function of the community. This is the case with Christianity in India, especially among the dalits (“outcastes”) and tribals, as mentioned above, where there were mass movements.

These churches are comfortable with foreign partners, and we are comfortable with them. They look and act a lot like us, and they often want to imitate our ways. They welcome us into their communities and sometimes even want us to provide leadership. Of course, our caution as foreigners is to remain in a secondary role as encouragers and cheer leaders.

The second way has been through insider movements. These are the “C5” believers, who remain in their sociological settings even though they are a small minority (see John Travis, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum,”Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34 [no. 4, 1998]: 407). They continue to call themselves “Buddhists” or “Muslims” or “Hindus” in the sociological sense. They participate in all activities—including the social aspects of the religious events—as responsible members of the society. For them, being a disciple of Christ is not joining a different social community but being a witness within the community.

For foreign missionaries as well, this approach facilitates access. Once again Tim and Rebecca Lewis relate their experience: “We had never thought of looking for people who would invite us into their family or community to talk about Jesus! But Jesus and the disciples had planted churches this way” (p. 18).

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