I recently had the opportunity to view a simulcast of David Platt’s 2016 “Secret Church” broadcast, shown at my local church—East Boulder Baptist. For many years I’d heard from friends about how powerful these times of intense Biblical teaching were, and so this year for the first time I was able to participate in one, along with several of our other Christian Challenge students and staff! For anyone who is not familiar with Secret Church, it is an annual time of teaching from David Platt, currently the president of the IMB, and formerly pastor of the Church at Brook Hills. First held back in 2006, the aim of Secret Church is to provide an intense 6-hour block of Biblical teaching and prayer, modeled on Platt’s missionary experiences in Asian house churches, where often he might only have a single evening to be able to impart to underground pastors doctrinal instruction and encouragement. Given the circumstances which inspired it, each Secret Church broadcast includes a period of prayer for the nations and particularly persecuted churches, along with the teaching.
This year’s Secret Church was titled “A Global Gospel in a world of religions”, and focused on the relationship between Christianity and the other major world religions. I was particularly excited about this topic, given that much of my work at CU with Christian Challenge involves reaching out to international students, the vast majority of whom are coming from a non-Christian background. Platt focused on three main world religions Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, and also talked about Animism and Atheism, which, while they do not fall as neatly into the category of organized religions, are still very pervasive worldviews.
Platt’s talk began with a survey of the religious makeup of the world at present. This included some interesting projections for how religious demographics might change by 2050, based on extensive research from the Pew Forum. The projections estimate that Islam will have nearly equaled Christianity as the religion with the most adherents worldwide by 2050. This increase is due in part to the fact that Islamic adherents in general have higher birth rates, but in addition, these projections are also based on the sad estimate that approximately 106 million people are expected to leave Christianity over these next 34 years. In Europe in particular, the Christian population is predicted to continue to decline markedly. Interestingly, China is somewhat of an “x-factor” in these predictions however. If the rapid growth of Christianity in that nation continues, then by 2050, over 50% of the population might be Christian, a truly remarkable development for an avowedly atheistic state! Granted, hard data on the church in China can be difficult to obtain, but even if these estimates prove to be exaggerated, there is no denying that with its huge population, China could play a major role in determining the future of world Christendom. Platt emphasized that of course all of these projections are subject to change, with one of the main variable factors being a possible missional awakening in the worldwide church. On this note, Platt cited British writer and journalist Douglas Murray, who is himself an atheist, as noting that the growth of Islam in the Western World is partially attributable to the fact that “most branches of mainstream Christianity have lost the confidence to proselytize.”
Before going into a discussion of some of the specific religions and worldviews, Platt first gave a helpful summary of what the heart of the Gospel message, and thereby the distinctiveness of Christianity, entails. He used an acrostic for “GOSPEL” to help summarize the essential Christian message.
O—Offense of sin
S—Sufficiency of Christ
Platt then mentioned the critical importance of evangelism as the duty of every Christian in spreading the Gospel message with those around them. Then he highlighted personal conversion as a necessary and individual response to this message which would then extend to a lifelong commitment to follow Christ as Lord and Savior.
Then Platt turned to an individual discussion of five main religions and worldviews. With each religion/worldview that he discussed, after laying out its basic characteristics and tenets, Platt then offered some practical suggestions for how Christians could engage people coming from these traditions in spiritual conversations. First he talked about Animism, which is less an organized religion than a worldview which sees the physical world as being interpenetrated with spiritual forces. Inanimate objects can carry spiritual significance as can natural events, and the practitioner seeks to manipulate and or appease these various spiritual forces through the use of magic, prayer, and superstition. There is also a focus on immediate benefit or gain as opposed to long-term, or eternal rewards. Now many people may assume that animism is limited to tribal peoples in remote villages in Africa or South America. But in fact, as Platt revealed, Animism can be encountered all over the world. Since it is more of a worldview than a strict set of religious tenets, it can be easily grafted onto another faith, including Christianity. Living in a city such as Boulder, I have encountered a fair amount of “spirituality” that might could be categorized as animistic in nature. For example, there are many people in the Boulder area who’ve embraced aspects of New Age religion including adherence to astrology, healing “crystals”, fad spiritual “diets”, and other practices that could be labeled as superstitions. To share the Gospel with Animists, Platt recommended that we warn about the deceptive power wrought by false spirits (ref. 1 John 4:1). He also suggested that we emphasize the singular spiritual power of Christ over nature, disease, sin, and death itself noting that the Gospel of Mark in particular is a good place to take Animists to show them some of the Scriptural stories illustrating Jesus’ power.
Next, Platt looked at Hinduism, which has some 915 million followers worldwide. In North America, if continued patterns of migration persist, the Hindu population is expected to double by 2050. Hinduism is a very ancient religion which is difficult to quantify because of the vast diversity of beliefs and practices it encompasses, which can often differ widely by region. It includes a polytheistic worldview where some estimates hold that a staggering total of 330 million different deities are worshipped. Two central tenets include a belief in reincarnation (Samsara), the process by which each soul must pass through endless lifetimes before salvation is attained, and the idea of karma, that actions in an individual’s past lives determine their current condition, while present actions can influence future lives. Hindus seek salvation (Moksha) through a variety of paths, including through works (Dharma), knowledge (Jnana), devotion (Bhakti). Aids in these paths to salvation can include mantras, yoga, participation in religious festivals, and ritual bathing. But all paths involve an intense human effort which is of course opposed to the Christian concept of salvation apart from any human works or striving. Here in Boulder I certainly see evidence of an interest in aspects of Hindu spirituality, most notably through yoga, which is extremely popular around town. The Hindu greeting “Namaste” is also commonly used in social media. There are also a large number of international students at CU who are coming from Hindu religious backgrounds. In sharing the Gospel with Hindus, Platt recommends emphasizing the uniqueness and exclusivity of Christ (ref. John 14:6), since a polytheistic worldview might be tempted to view Jesus as simply one more god that can be added to the pantheon. He also mentioned highlighting the fact that Christianity offers the opportunity for someone to know God now (2 Corinthians 6:2), rather than only after an endless cycle of countless reincarnations, the possibility of which the Bible expressly refutes (Hebrews 9:27).
Next in the study was Buddhism, whose teachings can be summed up with an explanation of the Four Noble Truths, from which follows the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths include the affirmation that all of life is suffering (Dukkha), suffering is caused by selfish desire (Samudaya), the cure for this suffering is the cessation of desire (Nirodha), and the path to liberation from suffering (magga) has eight steps. These eight steps, called the Eightfold Path include right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. The goal in all of this is to achieve final enlightenment (Nirvana). It can only be obtained through intense self-effort, using aids such as mantras and meditations. And while different schools of Buddhism vary on their belief in the possibility of supernatural aid, they are similar in their rejection of the concept of a personal, creator God. In Boulder, I’ve certainly seen a wide array of evidence to suggest that Buddhism is an “in vogue” religion. Many stores on Pearl Street sell small images of Buddha and Buddhist prayer flags, which can also be seen hung from houses and apartment buildings. There is a Buddhist university here–Naropa, along with a Zen Meditation Center, and the Boulder Shambhala Tibetan Buddhist cultural center. To witness to Buddhists, Christians should emphasize that salvation in Christ is not possible by any human works or effort, attainable only through faith and God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). And while each of the virtues of the Eightfold Path can in some sense be correlated to Scriptural verses which encourage similar practices, really focusing on the nature of salvation as a gift will emphasize to the Buddhist that the aim of Christianity is not to merely pursue a life of good works. One of the most striking points that Platt made in comparison between the two faiths is the idea that while Buddhism’s goal is the ultimate elimination of desire, Christianity’s goal is the ultimate fulfillment of all of our desires in Christ (Philippians 4:19).
Next we discussed the faith which is currently the fastest growing religion in North America, and is estimated to expand to represent 10% of the overall European population by 2050—Islam. Muslim beliefs are summed up by the idea of submitting to their God, Allah. The central tenets of the faith are contained in the so-called Five Pillars of Islam. These include the central confession of faith (Shahada)—“there is god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”, five daily times of prayer (Salat), the giving of alms to the poor (zakat), the special fast during the month of Ramadan (Sawm), and the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (Haji). Apart from the many political disturbances which have occurred in recent years between Muslims and non-Muslims, Platt pointed out that dialogue between Christians and Muslims is further complicated by several misconceptions that many Muslims have about Christianity. Because Islam strictly proclaims that the true meaning of the Koran can only be obtained by reading it in the original Arabic, they are suspicious that the meaning of the Bible has been corrupted through its many different translations. Also, because a true separation of Church and State is uncommon in many majority Muslim cultures, they tend to equate Western culture as being synonymous with “Christianity.” Thus they may view American movies and television as somehow representing Christian views simply because they were produced in a country that has a majority Christian population. Muslims frequently misunderstand the concept of the Trinity, and assume that Christians actually worship three different gods—God the Father, Mary the Mother, and Jesus the Son. And while it is true that Jesus is an honored figure within Islam, He is viewed simply as one more great prophet (while Muhammad is the last and greatest prophet), and not as the Son of God. In addition, Muslims do not believe that Jesus really died on the Cross. In witnessing to our Muslim friends we must therefore emphasize the Oneness of the Triune God, as well as the equality of all three Persons in the Trinity. Followers of Islam should also receive a clear Christology—that Jesus is both fully God and fully Man (Hebrews 4:14-16). Finally, in talking with Muslims we could do well to borrow from one of my favorite C.S Lewis quotes about the nature of Christ, as found in the classic apologetic text, Mere Christianity—“ I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” Also, just as with all of the other major religions, we can contrast the Muslim belief in salvation through works with the Christian conception of salvation by grace, through faith alone.
Finally, Platt looked at Atheism, which while not a religion as such, is continuing to gain ground as a widely prevalent worldview, especially in the West, and in a city like Boulder. The Pew Forum estimates that by 2050 the self-identified “non-religious” sector of the North American population will increase from 16 to 26% of the total population. Atheism can be hard to categorize but Platt helpfully offered three common “types” of Atheism that one may encounter. “Scientific Sam” is the atheist who is a pure materialist, denying the existence of anything spiritual that cannot be scientifically proved, and determining furthermore that scientific theories and discoveries can account for most of the mysteries in our life, providing a plausible and coherent worldview in which the “comfort” of religion or a belief in God is thus unnecessary. “Moral Mark” is the atheist who becomes fed up with the hypocrisy they see amongst adherents of organized religion, and thus decides that one could be just as moral and “good” of a person without following any religious tenets. Furthermore such individuals often go a step further and conclude that religion is not only unnecessary, but might even be actively harmful, keeping people intellectually and emotionally burdened with fear and superstition. Finally there is “Insignificant Isabelle”, an atheist who no longer feels the need for the “crutch” that religion provides. They have come to terms with their own insignificance in a vast and indifferent universe, and have accepted that death is the final and natural end of everything. They have even decided that being without a belief in God is liberating because they are now free to make the most of their lives in the here and now without being distracted by any promise of future reward or punishment. In talking with atheists, Platt urged Christians to pursue “humble dialogue” where we are willing to honestly listen to their objections to our faith. At the same time, we should strive to ask some pointed, and thought-provoking questions about their worldview and its logical implications.
Platt ended Secret Church 2016 with three conclusions: there is an eternal hell which awaits everyone who does not believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while an eternal heaven is the reward which awaits those who have accepted Christ, and finally—we are the means by which God has ordained that the Gospel might go to every person in the world!! (Romans 10:13-15). Then, he offered three exhortations: we must pray passionately (Matthew 9:37-38), give sacrificially (Matthew 6:19-21), and go confidently (Acts 20:24)—to people right around us, and people around the world. In doing so, we know there will be risk (Matthew 24:9-13), and yet we should be constantly looking towards our reward! (Hebrews 12:1-2). It was a blessing for me to be able to take part in Secret Church 2016. I feel that I not only gained a little better overall perspective on world religions, and clarified my understanding of some of the most salient features of these other world faiths, but most importantly was reminded throughout Platt’s teaching about the beautiful uniqueness of the Gospel. The University of Colorado campus, like many university campuses around the country is increasingly becoming a marketplace of competing worldviews, ranging from traditional religions, to eclectic “spirituality” and avowedly non-spiritual positions such as atheism. With people coming from all of these different backgrounds, my goal is to be able to listen to their stories and then confidently articulate the truth of the Gospel in response. I am reminded of a favorite passage from Colossians 4:5-6–“Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” How fortunate that I am living in a time and place where members of the nations, and representatives of so many different worldviews are accessible for building relationships with that can lead to spiritual conversations, and witnessing opportunities. I pray that I, along with other Christian Challenge students and staff will always take our responsibility as ambassadors for Christ seriously, and will rejoice in the chance God has given us to testify of the One Gospel that saves amidst a world of religions.