Sarah Foster is a researcher, teacher, and speaker for the Pfander Centre for Apologetics, a ministry focused on bringing the gospel to the Muslim mind. She is a volunteer youth worker in her local church.
Margaret Pritchard Houston is children’s mission enabler for the Diocese of St Albans. Formerly a church children’s worker and primary school teacher, she is also the author of There is a season: celebrating the church year with children. She blogs at stalbanscme.com.
What impact do you think multiculturalism is having on youth and children’s work?
Margaret Pritchard Houston: In a growing number of our communities, children are going to be much more aware of other faiths. They’re going to inevitably have questions, not abstract questions but ones connected to relationships they have with real children. It’s not just a question about an idea; it’s a question about people.
Sarah Foster: In my youth group, I have some members who only have Muslim friends so if you are speaking about other faiths, immediately they are thinking about them. But ideology is also important because with multiculturalism, there is now a need for leaders and children to be aware of what the growing questions are. Are our young people equipped to handle those objections and to talk about their faith?
How should we talk about other religions with children in our groups?
MPH: In many ways it often comes up naturally - children might have questions or experiences. It’s a lot to ask our children’s leaders to be aware of what other religions are saying and doing. That’s basically asking someone to have an RE teacher’s level of knowledge in order to lead a Sunday school group! So I think it’s important to say: “I don’t know, that’s a really good question, let’s see how we can find out together.” It’s important, especially if we’re talking about complicated issues like terrorism and fundamentalism, to acknowledge that Christianity doesn’t have much of a moral high ground compared to other religions. We need to acknowledge that we aren’t coming from a position of perfection and this is something all religions struggle with.
SF: What I love about Christianity is we see God getting to the route of problems, ultimately sin, and exposing it, so that there can be healing and forgiveness. Where there have been terrible instances in Church history we need to acknowledge, repent and apologise. But I would separate Christian history from what the Bible actually teaches. Did Jesus have slaves? Did he kill anyone? Did he teach his disciples to kill anyone? I see a difference between that and Islam, where Muhammad did have slaves, where his disciples raided Africa, Europe and India.
We recently did a session on terrorism and asked our young people how they felt. Some were scared. So what is our response?
If we are going to share our faith, we need to be comfortable with other people sharing their faith with us
What does the Bible teach? We shouldn’t be afraid of those who want to kill us, we should be fearful of God in whom our souls rest. If the focus is on God and we love God and one another, we separate the religions from the people. God made people in the image of God, whether Muslim, Jew or Zoroastrian. We love them completely. But at the same time, Jesus did say: “Go and make disciples”, so we are to challenge ideologies.
MPH: I think comparing Jesus with Muhammad is a bit of a false equivalent because we claim that Jesus is God and, while Muhammad is the final prophet, there is no claim of divinity there. But having conversations with their friends is really important to tease out those differences. Encourage children that it doesn’t mean the relationship has to be a difficult one; we can have real differences and still love one another.
All of us are on a journey of discovery. If you look at the Old Testament, God chose a family, then a tribe, then a nation and then Jesus comes in and says: “Actually, he chose everyone.” And that’s something that God’s people discovered over time. That’s why the Holy Spirit matters - God is still speaking, God is still revealing himself, and I think that is true of other communities as well.
SF: Yes, we see progressive revelation in the Bible, and yes there has been a journey, but it is important that our young people know the foundation of Christianity. What is it that makes you a Christian? It’s the death and resurrection of Christ, which Islam denies. I think these are important distinctions that our young people need to know. Not to say: “These people don’t know anything.” No: we’re respectful; we love them, but we need to be clear on what makes us Christians. We’re sinners, saved by grace, and if we know the basis of salvation, then we can share it. If we shy away from it and don’t recognise, not only its distinctiveness, but its power to save, then we’re going to struggle with evangelism, and we are going to struggle keeping our young people.
MPH: I agree that the death and resurrection of Jesus is something that happened once and for all, and we don’t need anything more. But I think as time and history changes, inevitably our understanding of what it all means is going to be continuously up for debate. The Jewish principle is that God is in the debate. God is in the back and forth, not just in the outcome, but in the discussion itself. That is something that happens continuously with every community of faith because we have scriptures that are complicated and difficult.
Do we all worship the same God anyway?
SF: Absolutely not! In terms of Judaism and Christianity, I would say we worship the same God, our scriptures fit right onto the Jewish scriptures. We don’t say that the Jewish scriptures have been corrupted; we just say that there has been progressive revelation. Islam says that the Jewish and Christian scriptures have been corrupted. You cannot put the Qur’an on the end of the Bible because you have major differences, starting with Adam and Eve - that story is completely different in the Qur’an. In the Bible we see that sin is so important that God cast them out of the garden, the relationship between God and man is broken. In the Qur’an, it’s just a slip, Adam just makes a mistake, it wasn’t even their fault; Satan made them do it. And Allah just gives guidance. This is why many Muslims don’t understand why Jesus had to die on the cross, why sin has to be punished.
MPH: I struggle with this because ultimately I can’t know. My belief is that there is only one God. God who was himself made incarnate in Jesus Christ, who revealed himself in the Spirit. So it must follow that if someone is worshipping, that’s the God they’re worshipping.
I loved the Narnia books as a child and there is that wonderful scene in The last battle, where a Calormene soldier is in the ‘new Narnia’ and he says to Aslan: “How is it that I’m seeing you and I’m here in paradise, having worshipped a different god my whole life?” And Aslan says: “If any man swears by Tash, it’s to me that he has sworn, though he doesn’t know it…” Of course, it’s not a perfect analogy, because Tash is a blood-thirsty human-sacrifice god, but I think that principle is a good starting point, to ask children: “What do you think about this? Are we worshipping the same God?” If someone is loyally serving their understanding of God and that leads to actions like we saw with the imam outside the mosque in Finsbury Park, keeping the crowd from taking vengeance on this man who was trying to kill them, that is a very self-sacrificial, turning the other cheek action.
I believe that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, I’m not sure if they always know it’s through Jesus. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were brought to a point before they even recognised Jesus.
SF: In the Bible you have ‘the one true God’ but you also have ‘other gods’. If I believe that the God of the Bible is the true God, then something that contradicts it, I will class as false. But I do believe, as you said, that there is common grace, and you can have people who don’t follow my God, being very, very good. I know many Muslims who are much ‘better’ than me. But the level of my own morality is inconsequential when it comes to what Jesus laid down in terms of salvation. It’s not because I’m good that I have been saved, it’s because Jesus has done something and out of his love for me, I have love for other people and need to tell them about it.
"It’s very important that we encourage children to rely not on our faith as leaders, but to seek the Lord for themselves"
Should we share our faith with children and young people of other faiths?
SF: If we believe it’s true, and it’s good for them, then why wouldn’t we? The Bible says: “Train up a child in the way they should go and when they get old it shouldn’t depart from them.” If we learn to fear the Lord when we’re young, it saves us a lot of problems when we’re older. I think it’s very important that we encourage children not to rely on our faith as leaders, but to seek the Lord for themselves. Ask questions, encourage questions, don’t just look at Christianity, look at atheism, Buddhism, other faiths. We may not know the answers but we work towards them together, living an authentic faith, explaining why we believe and encouraging children to find Jesus for themselves.
MPH: Part of it is knowing what we have in common and honouring that. In many ways context matters in sharing faith. People expect us to talk about Jesus in church-based toddler a group, that’s what we do, it’s who we are. But people are also turned off by groups where they feel like they’re beaten over the head with a Bible. Even if it’s not an overtly religious event, I think it’s fine to talk about your own story. We find a lot more progress in sharing stories than we do in arguing over doctrine. If we are going to share our faith, we need to be comfortable with other people sharing their faith with us. It’s not a one-way street. It’s a conversation and I think we need to come with our walls down and our hearts open and ready to share and be vulnerable.