Ganoune Diop: Dialogue with an Adventist leader in inter-faith approaches
A professional flautist. A trained theologian. A multilinguist with proficiency in 10 languages. Dr. Ganoune Diop is all this, plus a person with a passion for missions. Raised in a multicultural, predominantly Muslim setting in Senegal, Dr. Diop became a Seventh-day Adventist 30 years ago when he was studying flute at the Conservatory of Music of La Rochelle in France, and he came under the influence of an Adventist teacher. His educational achievement includes a Master’s degree in philology, and a doctorate in Old Testament studies.
Currently, Dr. Diop is serving as the director and coordinator of five inter-faith study centers around the world. These centers are established by the world church to promote better understanding of, and fresh approaches to, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, secularism, and postmodernism. The centers are located respectively in India, Thailand, Cyprus, Israel and England (see box).
As a director of these interfaith study centers, Dr. Diop serves as a liaison between the centers and the church’s administration at the world headquarters, including the 13 world divisions, and the Biblical Research Institute.
How did you become an Adventist?
While studying flute at the conservatory of music in France, I came in contact with one of my teachers, who happened to be an Adventist. In our conversations, I often talked to him about my struggle for inner freedom, even though I did not know what it all meant. Once he told me rather boldly that I would really be free the day I came to know Jesus. To be that bold and direct may not work under all circumstances, but it worked for me. I thought I knew Jesus. I used to hear about Jesus in my childhood. But the way he talked about Jesus showed that there was something more than just an intellectual grasp of who Jesus was.
What were some of the challenges you faced as an Adventist in a secular educational institution?
Understanding people’s mindset, and worldview, especially in French society. I tried to understand why people weren’t interested in religion. The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that it’s because of the abuses of the past in the name of religion. Power was used not to protect people but for other purposes. Think about what brought the French Revolution in the first place. There are generations of people who are still disillusioned and disenchanted because of that. Ideologies of the past have failed. It has led to a postmodern type of mentality.
How can Adventists in public universities participate in the church’s Global Mission initiatives?
By being witnesses where they are. Global Mission is really about reaching the unreached. By knowing God and being in a relationship with Him. Christ’s method cannot be outdated – mingling with people, you know, until a trusting relationship is built, and then we can share Christ.
Why does the church need study centers? Paul and Silas didn’t have them.
Paul and Silas didn’t need them because they had a very localized ministry and they were conversant with the people with whom they were preaching. Paul knew about Greek philosophers. He could cite their poets and converse in the local idioms. Today, we have a worldwide movement, the Adventist Church, so the centers are to equip the church in developing awareness and competence among church members in reaching people of various world religions.
What are the centers doing?
They are creating methods and models and equipping the church to know how to better understand and approach other people groups. Now, some centers are more active than others. Some are producing results that can be quantified. Others, like the secular and postmodern center in England, have just started, and it takes more time because they work in more challenging areas. The center in Thailand is doing a fantastic job. They are putting out a CD of resources. The Global Center for Adventist Muslim Relations has one already. The World Jewish Friendship Center is creating communities in several countries. These centers are also helping various church departments put out materials. Obviously, it’s not just about multiplying activities and producing materials. It’s also about developing a proper theological vision and applying missiological perspectives that are loyal to the church.
We contacted the secular and postmodern center in England. They said they are still in the preliminary stages of research. How long have these centers been open?
The study center initiative started in the 1990s, so some of them have been around for about 10 years. The Centre for Secular and Postmodern Studies is the newest. It started a few years ago and its current format is just over a year old.
The Center for Hinduism told us they are having success by promoting an Indian style of worship. What is that?
Worshiping in Indian style does not mean worshiping in Hindu temples. What it means is to adapt worship forms, such as singing and preaching, to local traditional culture that in no way contradicts Christian imperatives. Not so long ago, I was in India and observed worshippers seated on the floor and singing lyrics with traditional Indian melodies. Not the Western-style hymns. They are using local musical instruments. The centers can do much more; many of them are just at the infant stage of developing a contexualized means of proclamation and producing relevant materials. They are on a learning curve right now. Some of them are really doing well. My challenge is to help them really deliver what they were set up for.
What have been some of the shortcomings?
I think the church needs the collaboration of missiologists, practitioners, and theologians to really bring about a radical understanding of world religions and long-lasting ministries. It’s not enough to just have a “missionary heart.” We also need to engage both theologians and missiologists to benefit the ministries in various unentered areas.
I imagine, as in some church administrative structures, that personnel is also limited.
Ideally, we would want to have the centers fully devoted to their global mission work. Even though these centers are located in various divisions, they are General Conference [world church administration] entities, so they are called to serve the world church. As they see the global need, the centers will be prompted to produce materials. They do have results now. To me, the results can be maximized, and we can be doing far more than we are currently doing.
As we look to the future, we need to think in terms of expanding the centers and having a body of cross-disciplinary competence. Also, identify new venues. I just got back from Azerbaijan, and it would be great to equip those people to minister to nearby countries. That’s something I’m exploring – different venues for the unreached people groups. Many of those countries are Islamic but with a communist, secular twist. It’s a different kind of Islam than you find in the Middle East or Africa or Indonesia.
There are parts of the world where proselytism is illegal. To what degree can we promote our beliefs?
Well, this is where contextualized ministry becomes effective – indigenous people are empowered to find ways to live their newfound faith in Christ in spite of the adverse circumstances in which they live. So the centers explore ways, in that sense, and develop models.
How can we encourage generosity among missionaries and promote embracing people rather than dueling with people to whom they are sent? Do some feel they are in a battle of who is right?
We cannot succeed by saying, “We have the truth, and you better listen to us.” A missionary needs to be confident of his or her being sent to proclaim God’s truth. There is no arrogance in that. Actually, every religion claims its beliefs are absolute. Well, except Hinduism and syncretistic religions. However, when you go out there you do so, not to patronize them or demean them, but rather to accompany them in their spiritual journey toward a radical transformation.
Is there anything else you wish to share with us, the readers, or the study center directors?
The mission is God’s mission. We are participating in what God is doing. These centers not only equip but also develop mission awareness in people by training them all over the world. But in participating in God’s mission, the bottom line is still about promoting Jesus Christ, His dignity and sovereignty, and His compassion that He shares with all people groups. So I want to encourage the study center directors to fulfill the mission entrusted to their care in conversation and in partnership with the leaders of the church. Accountability is healthy and the only way to measure efficiency and overcome a sectarian mentality. I want also the readers and students to be conscious of their own role in contexualized ministry in the great universities of the world.
Ansel Oliver is an assistant director for news and communication at the Communication Department of the General Conference. E-mail: email@example.com.
Ganoune Diop’s e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview originally appeared in the Adventist Review. This is an adapted and modified version. Used by permission.