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Perfect Strangers: Christians Living Among Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims

By Natalie Crowson
November 2007

Canadian missionary pastor Oswald J. Smith once said, “We talk of the Second Coming; half the world has never heard of the first one.” After reading an October 2007 article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, I do not find Smith’s words an exaggeration. Todd Johnson and Charles Tieszen’s article entitled “Personal Contact: The sine qua non of Twenty-First Century Christian Mission” reiterates the importance of Christian contact with non-Christians while evaluating the present condition of Christian witness in the world. The research Johnson and Tieszen present reflects a serious need to refocus efforts of world evangelization.1

Determining Level of Contact between Christians and Non-Christians
Johnson and Tieszen used two variables from a study of evangelization to determine the level of contact between Christians and non-Christians. The first, “discipling/personal work,” shows how much contact local church members have with non-Christians. The second, “outside Christians,” looks at the presence of Christians living near non-Christians. Using these variables, Johnson and Tieszen were able to produce a table showing the major religious groups by continent and their contact with Christians. The major religious groups in the study included Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Nonreligious and Ethnoreligionists. The study also included data from each continent: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, Northern America and Oceania. The excerpt from Table 1 shows the percentage of non-Christians who personally know a Christian, by continental area, mid-2007.

The table is a striking visual example of the disparity between Christian contact throughout the world. The results are staggering:

  • Only 10.4% of Muslims in Asia personally know a Christian, whereas 67.8% of Muslims in North America know a Christian.

  • Only 13.3% of all Muslims worldwide personally know a Christian.

  • Among Hindus and Buddhists worldwide, only 14.1% know a Christian.

  • Asia is the most isolated continent with only 13.3% of the more than 3.6 billion people claiming to know a Christian.

  • Eighty-six percent of all Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists do not know a Christian.

While Johnson and Tieszen’s research led to eight primary findings, I will address only three.

  1. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims have relatively little contact with Christians.

  2. The nonreligious are more in touch with Christians than other religionists, except in Asia.

  3. Globally, over eighty percent of all non-Christians do not personally know a Christian.

The fact that Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims have little contact is perhaps not too surprising; however, this finding, coupled with Islam’s rapid growth rate over the last decade, is deeply alarming.2 

Getting Christians in Contact with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims
How should Christians respond to this issue? Johnson and Tieszen encourage Christians to be deliberate about encountering Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. This could take the form of living in a predominantly Muslim area, learning more about Buddhism in order to dialogue with confidence, learning another language to communicate clearly and being hospitable and kind to immigrants. At the core of each of these examples is the need to be intentional. Without intentionally seeking out opportunities to befriend and contact non-Christians, we lose the privilege to help advance the cause of Christ.

According to Johnson and Tieszen, most nonreligious people who know a Christian are former Christians or atheists from the West reacting against Christianity. How should Christians respond to them? Christians should live in such a way that Christ is exalted and love abounds. If Christians live in obedience to the commands of Christ, surely fewer would leave the fold over disharmony. No doubt those having already left Christianity could also benefit from seeing Christians live out the commands of Christ in community. Again, being intentional about contacting and developing personal relationships is at the heart of reaching nonreligious people.

The third finding is perhaps the most troubling to me. If eighty percent of non-Christians do not know a Christian, what chance do they have to learn about true Christianity? God can and does use other means besides Christians to make himself known, yet by and large the message of Christ has been communicated personally through Christians for the past two millennia. As Johnson and Tieszen emphasize, God himself is our model where personal contact is concerned. He, himself, was present among the Hebrew children. Christ is, of course, the ultimate presence of God among us. Clearly, Christians should model his example and live among people who are in most desperate need of truth. More than this, Christians as a whole must reevaluate the focus of their resources. Johnson and Tieszen state that “ninety percent of Christian resources for mission are directed at Christians.” Surely, now is the time to regroup and refocus Christian efforts toward the eight percent who have little chance to know God. 

Measured—and Found Wanting
Each of these findings indicates that the global Christian community has been measured and found wanting. The research implores us to consider our own methods of evangelism both on individual and group levels. Let us not forget that any method used to reach non-Christians should result in meaningful relationships rooted in love and compassion for the sake of Christ.

There will no doubt be areas to improve and God will continue to grow his kingdom around the world, using Christians obedient to his commands. Our hearts and minds should align with the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 10:14: “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”

Endnotes

1. For full article, including research methodology, see Evangelical Missions Quarterly, October 2007, 494-502.

2. World Christian Database


Natalie Crowson is a research assistant at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.