In today’s digitally connected world, we are daily confronted with the plight of people around the globe and in our own backyard. Through social media, we encounter stories and photos of every kind of human suffering. The question of the hour is, “What are Christians doing to demonstrate the love of Jesus in a hurting world?” In other words: how are Christians walking their talk? The question is a daunting one, but it affords Christ-followers the opportunity to examine how we put our faith into practice.
With more than 15 years of experience building bridges between Christian and Muslim communities, Associate Professor of Practical Theology Dr. Abjar Bahkou shares a compelling, thoughtful and practical perspective on how faith translates — both literally and metaphorically — into meaningful action.
Dr. Bahkou, we want to hear your thoughts on putting theology into practice. But first, would you please tell us about your background?
I was born in a small town in Northeast Syria called Al-Malikyya at the border of Turkey and Iraq. In 1986, at the age of 14, I left my hometown and traveled 500 miles to enroll at Saint Ephraim Theological Seminary in Damascus. It is the main seminary in the Syrian Orthodox Church.
After completing my theological studies in 1993, I served as an ordained deacon-monk in the Syrian Orthodox Church. Next, I was sent by the patriarchate to study in Rome where I completed my master’s degree in 1997. Two years later, I earned a doctorate in Youth Ministry and Catechesis. Then I was called to serve as youth pastor and Bishop Assistant to the Western Archdiocese of the United States, located in Burbank, Calif. This is how I started my life as a minister in America.
In 2007, I was asked to translate Life with God by Dr. Laurence L. White into Arabic. For over two months, I lived and interacted with this book. While working on this project, I realized that I had been living “under the law.” I had been trying to please an angry God through man-made rituals, regulations and traditions. This project inspired me to become a certified pastor in The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS).
Your work has given you a window not only into Christianity but other world religions. What do North American Christians need to know to give them a global perspective?
The message of the Gospel never changed; Jesus commanded us to disciple and baptize all nations. The Lutheran Confessions remain the same anywhere we go. The challenge is translating the unchanging Gospel message into the “mother language” of the people with whom we are engaged.
Over the years, missionaries have gone to the mission field with a colonial mentality. They have imposed their own religious agendas on the
people they wanted to reach without studying and respecting the culture they were in. Instead, we should be motivated by simply being with other people, learning their stories and sharing the story of Jesus with them. We need to let the Gospel convict the hearts of others. It is not our job to convert people. We are proclaimers. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts and converts hearts.
What role does theology play as we move outside the classroom?
We must remember that the words “mission” and “encounter” belong to each other. “Encounter” means a deliberate effort to engage genuinely and respectfully with another person. An encounter expresses a desire to relate to, communicate with and be understood by another person.
Whether in our neighborhoods and families or in a totally different cultural context, here are fourpractices that can help seminary students, pastors and all believers apply faith in encounters beyond the classroom:
- Be committed to fostering good, neighborly relationships. Opening our homes to others goes a long way. So does practicing kindness in daily contact.
- Practice serving others. Whether casual or professional, demonstrate a spirit of respect and love to others without discrimination.
- Be ready to listen. Listening is a form of hospitality.
- Be inviting. Christ invited people to follow Him. A real encounter cannot exclude such an invitation (provided that it fits with the spiritual climate of the encounter). This invitation must be extended respectfully, knowing that faith trusts in God and not to a particular group.
What ARE some “practical” implications of such global knowledge?
For the past 15 years, I have been involved in the field of evangelism among Muslims. The most common question I am asked is, “How can we reach out among our Muslim neighbors, coworkers and students?” I can tell you one thing for certain: No approach will work unless we take the initiative to become a neighbor to them — to tend to their needs and see where they are in their spiritual journey. Mission work is most effective when it meets the needs of the whole person, encompassing spiritual, emotional, physical, medical and educational areas. The Gospel of Christ is practical in this way. Its message heals and renews the heart of each person, and it also can heal and renew communities.
How does theology help us encounter and serve a hurting world?
The biblical idea of the image as recorded in Gen. 1:26-27 helps us to see theology from a global perspective. God has created everything; the highest creation of God is man, for only man was created in God’s image and likeness.
Based on this idea, as baptized children of God, we share a common humanity with all mankind. All human beings are created in God’s image, and are seen as our neighbor, our fellow creatures and sufferers. Second, as children of God we proclaim to the world by our deeds and actions the gift God has given us through our Baptism, that is, we have been raised by God, through Jesus Christ, from spiritual death to spiritual life. Serving the world, full of death, encountering hurting people from different religions, ethnic and social backgrounds, is to share with them the joy and hope of being alive in Christ! (Cf. 1 John 1: 1-2; 1 John 5: 11-12)
This is what we learn when we read Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. Luther called it a “theology to live by,” and he challenges us to “go and live it.”
Dr. Travis Scholl is managing editor of Seminary Publications at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.