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Jack Jackson ~ Evangelism: ESJ’s Roundtable Conversations

Evangelism is a natural and necessary element of multifaith conversations from Wesleyan perspectives. True conversation by Wesleyans means true announcement of the good news of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and coming reign. Yet a real conversation also means Christians are open to hearing what other faiths consider good news in their traditions. Multifaith conversations for Wesleyans always include evangelism (which to be authentic, must never include manipulation or coercion) and being evangelized.

Perhaps the best example of a Methodist model of this link between evangelism and multifaith conversations is E. Stanley Jones, a missionary to India with the Methodist Church from the 1920’s to 60s, and perhaps the twentieth century’s most significant missionary working out of the Methodist tradition. Critical to understanding his evangelistic ministry is appreciating the role of conversations with non-Christian communities.

He sought truth wherever he might find it, a characteristic that made him quite willing to submit Christianity to the scrutiny of its critics and be willing to be in conversation with persons from quite divergent traditions. He sought conversation with persons from other traditions because, if there was a better representative of God than Christ, he wanted to know it. He believed that there are people in other traditions who, like him, sought truth and would want to hear what Christ had done in Jones’s life. He lived in a tension between certitude of Christ’s supremacy and a great openness to truth wherever he might find it. In the end, though, he never discovered a more perfect representative of God than Christ and he never seemed to question the need for redemption from sin that Christ offers. His commitment to Christ, his desire to share the good news he found in Christ, and his openness to truth in other faiths, led him to offer and test his faith through three practices, namely large-group evangelistic lecturing followed by a question and answer session, round table conversations, and Christian Ashrams. Round table conversations provide the best example of where Christians both evangelized and were evangelized in multifaith settings.

Round table conversations were gatherings of smaller groups of people, usually between 15 and 40 people, which would allow for a more personal conversation than even a question and answer session afforded. Jones tried to ensure that approximately two thirds of the participants were non-Christians, with the remainder being primarily Indian Christians. Everyone was asked to share only their religious experience and specifically “how religion was working, what it was doing for us, and how we could find deeper reality.” The focus was on the practical effect of faith in a person’s life. The goal was to discover other people’s actual experience, not their understanding of dogma or doctrine. The focus must be “deeply experimental. What does religious bring in experience? What is its value for life?” The focus of conversations was not theology but the experiential benefits of faith. The round table conferences provided a venue for pointed conversations about different faiths, conversations where Jones believed an “untrammelled” Christ eventually stood at the center. Round table gatherings encouraged conversations among people from various religious traditions, secular philosophies, and ethical systems, who gathered as equals to share about their experience of religion.

The goal of the round table conversations was two fold. The first was to bring together people from India’s various religious traditions. The second was to create a space for educated Indians to specifically contemplate Christianity. In this way the gatherings were both interreligious and evangelistic. Every person was invited to share around the table. The conception of a round table was intentional, since nobody was head of the meeting. Jones himself never started the sharing and resisted attempts to summarize or comment on other people’s sharing. He usually shared at the end.

The goal was to have true conversation about each person’s experience of their own faith and its practical benefits for them, not doctrinal debate. The result was that people from each tradition were challenged, even Christians, regarding the source and substance of their faith. The result was an “attitude of appreciation with appraisal” of all religious traditions. Jones came to believe that these round table conferences provided the greatest venue for true conversation between people of different faiths.

Jones’s round table conversations offer an interesting vision of one Wesleyan community’s linking evangelism and multifaith conversations. He clearly believed in the uniqueness of the Christian faith, but his belief in humanity and the ability of all people to interact with the Holy Spirit led him to engage in open-ended conversations about the nature of various religious traditions and how people experienced the divine through them. His commitment to Christ was not a barrier to conversation with other traditions but rather opened him in dynamic ways to hearing other’s faith stories and sharing his own. In his mind, true multifaith conversation always included sharing the good news of Christ, and openness to good news from other traditions, though he never found better news than Christ. His round table gatherings, while highly specific to the context of India in the first half of the 20th century, are a model that offers insights into how Christian communities can engage in conversations that are authentically evangelical, noncoercive, and multifaith in nature.