Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and the Colombian evangelical church is overwhelmingly ex-Catholic. According to the Pew Research Center’s report “Religion in Latin America,” 74% of Colombian Protestants were raised Catholic, the highest of any country in the region.
So, it’s unsurprising that the strategies that most churches use to reach their communities are primarily geared toward two groups with different approaches to faith: religious Catholics and nominal Catholics. Ask a typical Colombian evangelical how to have a productive conversation with an atheist, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Mormon, and you’re likely to get blank stares.
Two and a half years ago I was teaching the class “Religious Systems” for the first time at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia, a class that seeks to equip students to understand other religions, sects, and worldviews on their own terms and then to construct theological and pastoral responses from an evangelical perspective. I told students we would make two field trips as a class to learn about other faiths. The first was to a Tibetan Buddhist center here in Medellín.
I recall my students’ palpable shock as the Buddhist sharing with us talked about reincarnation as if it were the most logical thing in the world—and this from a real Colombian, not a person from Asia! After restlessly shifting around for nearly two hours on cushions they normally used for meditation, we wrapped up our time of Q&A with a number of good questions from students, mixed in with the occasional insensitive one that made me embarrassed to be the professor. But the trip worked. Though frightened at first by the visit, students left feeling confronted over their need to learn how to share their faith with people who thought so differently, and encouraged that it was truly possible to build relationships with them.
This semester I have taught the course again, both residentially and online. A few weeks ago, I got an urgent email from my student Roman asking for prayer. “After starting the readings on Mormonism, I went online to request a free copy of the Book of Mormon, but it came with two missionaries included!” Since that first encounter, Roman has continued talking with the Mormon missionaries, seeking to share biblical truth with them and apply what he learned about Mormonism in the online course. He said that one of the missionaries seems more open and seeing the force of what he is sharing, while the other is more closed. Roman told me, “I’m going to keep talking with them until they either stop coming or they convert and accept the gospel.”
Another encouraging moment came a couple of weeks ago, when, after requiring students to have a 30-minute conversation with an atheist, agnostic, or other person who rejects traditional religion, a pastor in my online class shared about a productive conversation that he had with the husband of a woman who had recently begun attending his church. The man is an atheist with an extremely negative view of evangelicals, yet he saw in my student a model of careful thought and humble conviction that have caused him to be more open to establishing relationships with the church and perhaps one day considering the Christian faith.
While I haven’t seen anyone accept the gospel as a direct result of this course, I have been encouraged to see students taking steps of faith to engage with the unknown, and often scary, world of other religions. What they have discovered is that people of other faiths are just as human as us, just as relatable, and just as broken and in need of the gospel. And as Latin America becomes more and more secularized and diverse, I see a glimmer of hope that the evangelical church is waking up to its need for a better defense of the faith—one that doesn’t just work with the nominal Catholic who in theory believes the Bible but doesn’t really understand what it says—but one that responds to the atheists and followers of other religions who reject the Bible and whose worldviews often clash with a Christian view of reality at the deepest levels.
By: Kevin Johnson, Serving in Colombia
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