Numbers Are People, My Friend
It was, of course, that famous businessman-turned-governor-turned-almost-president who infamously quipped: “Corporations are people, my friend.” Strangely, Mitt Romney's bizarre blurb came to mind as I skimmed across the statistical gleanings of a recently released report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity—via this short article in Christianity Today.
Numbers, it turns out, are people, my friend.
(You can check out the full report by the CSGC here. Full disclosure: the mentoring professor for my D. Min. program in Global Christianity is Todd Johnson, who directs the CSGC and is quoted in the CT article.)
As a Jesus-follower, what I appreciate about the CSGC’s work is that it shines the bright lights on a gap—a “deficit,” as Johnson calls it—in Christian interaction with non-Christians. In fact, this deficit is a motivating vocational passion of mine in the direction of our Muslim neighbors—because a deficit of contact is sure to yield a deficit of love. Is it even possible to authentically love the neighbor we don’t actually know?
According to Johnson, the biggest factor weighing in to explain this overall deficit is immigration. CSGC research associate Gina Bellofatto pointedly remarks, “I don't know how many more million Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews need to come to this country before it becomes a priority.”
Johnson goes on to decry the general state of American hospitality. And he encourages Christians to think small—as in the simple gesture or the meaningful friendship—as opposed to thinking American-style big—see: the church-based or the Christian organization-based mission campaigns which (let’s be honest) will inevitably flow from this new river of data.
But I wanted to throw into play another, more insidious small/big dynamic with regard to this particular conversation.
Johnson hinted at “the small” by mentioning “Christian attitudes that see interreligious friendships merely as a vehicle for soul-winning.” For me, I have begun to see this sort of Christian approach as small (and small-minded) chiefly because it is ultimately a reductionist, means-to-an-end vision of gospel witness. It misses the God-given forest of deep, transformative friendships across faiths for the singular tree of a certain kind of witness in the world—usually, merely, proclamation-centered. In the name of mission, it takes a human being and makes him or her something quite less-than.
As for “the big,” although I understand the report and the CT article to be primarily in the context of Christianity and mission, I was struck by a different glaring deficit. Where is the theological and practical conversation—from the Christian perspective—about inter-religious exchange?
Here, Christians are surprisingly not thinking big enough. If
we persist in viewing interaction with non-Christians as only about a blessing
to give, we are bypassing other remarkable gifts: namely, that there might be some
distinct grace, something for us to receive or to understand precisely from that person
we are so eager to bless. Call
it the sign of Peter, a messenger unaware of how much the message would need to change him through an encounter.