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Five Cs of Interfaith and Intercultural Engagement

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Five Cs of Interfaith and Intercultural Engagement

Key Components That Will Free you to Move Without Fear—Mostly
Joel B. Groat

When you let these 5 Cs motivate and guide your relationships, engaging redemptively with others can become a natural, comfortable experience, even with those from an intimidating ethnic or religious identity. 

  1. Confidence in the Holy Spirit: Because He’s got this, and He’s in us, we’ve got this.
  2. Curiosity about others: I’m interested in you relationally because of who you are.
  3. Caring about their story: Your human experience evokes empathy in me.
  4. Clarity on the human condition: I can relate to your story and explain it in light of the bigger story.
  5. Competence to articulate and apply the Gospel: When you’re ready I can point you to repentance and faith in Jesus, and a life full of loving God and others. 

When these 5 Cs are motivating and informing your relationships, engaging with others from an intimidating religious background can feel more relaxed and comfortable than you thought possible. It won’t feel forced, or manipulative, or salesy, or scary. Well, maybe a little scary. After all, pursuing anything of value involves risk and putting yourself out there. Just let that flutter in your stomach remind you our confidence rests ultimately in God, his love, and his ability to transform lives from the inside out. 

Let’s explore each of these a bit more. 

1.  Confidence in the Holy Spirit: Because He’s got this, and He’s in us, we’ve got this.

This is the foundational starting point if we’re going to overcome the fear factor. It’s not about me.

The great majority of people I’ve taught or talked to on the subject of cross-faith conversations express their fears like this:

  • I’m afraid I won’t know what to say.
  • I’m scared the conversation will turn into a debate or an argument, and I hate conflict.
  • I’m afraid I’ll look foolish or stupid if I can’t answer their questions.
  • I fear I’ll be rejected.
  • I’m concerned something I say or do will cause them to reject Christianity. 

What is the common denominator with all these fears? Yes, the “I” word. So, step 1 is putting my confidence in the Holy Spirit and the promise of Jesus that “And when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment. (John 16:8). It’s not up to me to change anyone’s mind, or convict anyone’s heart. I’m free to love and care for and about people and trust the Holy Spirit will move in their heart and mind. 

So how do I do that? I lead with redemptive curiosity. And that is the subject of our next segment. 

2.  Curiosity about others: I’m interested in you relationally and culturally.  If our main motivation as we engage with someone is to get to know them better, our agenda is not conversion, it’s connection fueled by exploration. Here it’s important to remember that people are not projects. Every person we meet, regardless of their religious affiliation, or lack of it, is first and foremost a fellow image-bearer of God. So, whether they are Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhist, Mormon, or Muslim, there is way more that unites us than divides us. 

Think about how it feels when someone, even a total stranger, takes a genuine interest in you, in your story. Think about the sort of questions that draw you out, that affirm your personhood, that put you at ease and are a joy to answer. That is how we pursue another person.  We were all created for relationships. Your genuine curiosity about a person - their life, culture, and spiritual orientation - shows you care and are open to connection. 

We’ve got a short list of relational questions to get you started here. (See: Relational Questions for the Redemptively Curious) 

3.  Caring about their story: Your human experience evokes empathy in me. As you hear another’s story, open yourself to truly care about who they are and what they’ve been through. Invest some time in learning about unique and important aspects of their life, including their culture and faith tradition. As you hear their story, be open to the Spirit’s guidance on what to pursue and what to follow-up on.  

Practice going 3-5 follow-up questions deep.  This is intentional listening. When you ask a question, listen for the answer, and then ask a relevant follow-up question that goes another step deeper. In response to that answer, pursue it even further. Do this at least three times (five is better) before you start talking about yourself.  Our tendency is to short-circuit going deeper with people by too quickly switching the topic of conversation back to ourselves. Instead, resist the urge to talk about your story, or event, or example that just popped into your head.  As you pursue them and then let yourself engage emotionally with what they are sharing, you are showing empathy.  As Brené Brown has so cogently taught, empathy fuels connection between people. It deepens both trust and attachment. With trust comes openness and a willingness, even a desire, to hear another’s perspective and share at ever-deepening levels. (If you are not familiar with her work on empathy, circle back and watch this humorous and insightful video here: 

4.  Clarity on the human condition: I can relate to your story and explain it in light of the bigger story. Most people know their story, after all they’ve been living it. Yet many, especially those of a non-Christian religion, lack a perspective that makes sense out of the brokenness and hurt we all experience living in a fallen and very messed up world. 

Once we’ve listened well, we are ready to share our own story of brokenness.  We can be open and candid about who we are: redeemed sinners who still struggle with sin, doubters who still doubt. Even the “heroes” of our faith were not immune from struggle and fall. Examples abound from the Old Testament all the way to the present day. This underscores our need to both accept and extend mercy and grace.  We offer the world an amazing treasure, but we ourselves are but pots made out of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). “Christ in us” is our hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). 

Ask questions about how they understand suffering, or how they have handled life’s hurt and disappointment. Their answers just may open the door to sharing the Bible’s big picture story we’ve all been thrust into.  Consider framing life using the Bible’s five major themes:  Creation, Fall, Redemption, Church, New Heaven and New Earth. These provide the backstory, explanation, problem, solution and ultimate hope for what we all experience. As we share with people, this is something we offer, not something we force on them. If there is reluctance or a lack of interest, it’s not time yet. The goal is not to refute their accepted world view or religious framework, but to offer an alternate paradigm that can help them make sense of their experience. 

5.  Competence to articulate and apply the Gospel: When you’re ready I can point you to repentance and faith in Jesus, and a life full of loving God and others. As people grasp their sin problem and become aware of all they contribute to the brokenness of the world and their own lives, our hope is they start to understand their alienation from God and others. From here we trust the Holy Spirit will lead them to desire a solution. 

Hopefully, by this point in the relationship we’ve shared honestly and authentically our own brokenness and expressed gratitude for the grace or undeserved kindness, we’ve received, and the mercy shown us by God by placing our sin on His son Jesus. We’ve felt the wonder of a God who allows and invites us to exchange our sin and condemnation for His righteousness and acceptance.  The beauty of God and grace is this: God doesn’t care what religious label a person wears.  To every person in need, God offers Jesus as the fulfillment of that need. If they come in repentance and faith to Jesus as their only hope for reconciliation with God, and they accept forgiveness and eternal life as a wholly undeserved gift, He gives it to them and adopts them on the spot as His child. With His Holy Spirit inside them, they will begin to see the falsity and error of their prior religious framework, and hunger to replace this with truth from the Bible. 

Wait!” you say.  “What if I don’t feel competent to explain and share the gospel? I don’t want to mess it up or share something that is not true or biblical.” 

If that’s what you are thinking, you are not alone.  We have resources that can help you with this as well. A good place to start is our article, “Biblical Teaching of Salvation by Grace Alone through Faith in Jesus Christ found on our Salvation page. This page also has several other good resources to help you understand and share biblical salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. (

Guides Rather than Heroes

Through this whole process we are not the hero.  We are simply a guide, a fellow traveler who has been where they are (lost) and cares enough about them to want them to be where we are now (found).  We don’t have to be experts in their religion or faith tradition, though it certainly doesn’t hurt to learn something about it so we can ask intelligent questions or make valid and relevant comparisons. (IRR has a growing list of good resources on understanding and connecting with people of other religions here: ) 

A quick story to conclude.

I ended up hanging out in Cancun, Mexico with a young couple from Australia for nearly two days when we both got bumped from our overbooked flight from Mexico to Cuba. We were stuck in Mexico overnight. Their inability to speak Spanish, my fluency in Spanish, and our common plight, connected us rather quickly. I translated as the airline staff explained what was happening.  Then we rode together, ate meals together and talked about our lives and livelihoods. When we finally got rebooked nearly 24 hours later, we hung out in the airport together, feeling like we’d known each other for a lifetime. While I’d shared about my personal faith and ministry work during our conversations, it was during the last 30 minutes before boarding our flight when they raised a question of religion for themselves. 

They wondered out loud with me how they would raise their children given that one of them had a nominal Buddhist background and the other a nominal Christian one.  When they suggested they would just mix the two traditions and let their children decide I asked if they were aware of a fundamental difference between the two. They were not. So, I explained a significant tension between the teachings of Christ and Gautama Buddha.  Jesus taught the greatest commandment was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and then love your neighbor as yourself. The Buddha taught the primary aim of man was to extinguish all desire, because desire is what leads to pain and suffering in the world. How does one love without a desire to love and be loved? They quickly grasped the incompatibility of the two worldviews. In the process, we got to talk about how God’s love for us is at the heart of Jesus’ coming, and that sin, not desire is the cause for our human suffering. 

I share this to illustrate that we when we care about others and love them where they are and for who they are, the Holy Spirit can take the knowledge we have and use it to bring other people a step closer to Jesus. The more we learn about God, his Word, ourselves, and other people, the more there is for the Holy Spirit to use in our relationships with others. Our confidence is never in ourselves, our knowledge, or our abilities. Instead, it rests squarely on the Holy Spirit and his power to transform lives as he uses us to speak the truth in love. 

To this day, I’m not sure where this couple is spiritually. However, by progressing naturally through the five Cs of confidence, curiosity, caring, clarity, and competence, the Holy Spirit provided an opportunity to share the gospel in a way that was relaxed and natural.  Judging by their response, it was probably the first time either of them had heard it.  Our time together was free of fear and pressure. We simply enjoyed the process of strangers becoming friends as we shared an unfortunate and disruptive experience. Then, as friends, we enjoyed a relationship of trust that allowed us to explore matters of the heart and eternity.   

Our call in the here and now is to love God and love others, making disciples as we go and as the Holy Spirit grants opportunity. As we embrace this call and enter our neighbor’s story, regardless of their faith and culture, we will find our fear fading in the wonder and excitement of sharing life with fellow image-bearers. To the extent Jesus is a part of our story he will likely become a part of theirs. 

God bless you as you engage redemptively with the people He brings your way.