This article is part 1 in a series inspired by Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians. As I read this book, I felt like Lyons’ insight was particularly relevant to our discussion of evangelical involvement in the interfaith movement. Be sure to check out The Next Christians and check back here for part 2 of this series!
I’ve never found it sufficient to simply state that I’m a Christian when meeting someone new. Inevitably, saying so always leads to a question of brand or persuasion that, more often than not, seems to be accompanied with an assessment by my new acquaintance. People draw many conclusions from one’s denominational affiliation, and in the case of meeting other Christians, they want to know whether you are “one of theirs” or not. After all, we’ve all met that Christian who we just can’t quite stand to be around, right?
The sociology of Christianity fascinates me, and the only thing preventing me from writing a doctoral thesis on the subject is a lack of calling (and the fact that I’m currently training as an engineer and a physician, so don’t get your hopes up). The way that Christian doctrine has manifested itself in Christian living varies so greatly from person-to-person that it’s mind-blowing – something Gabe Lyons recognizes during a consulting gig with a film producer described in his book, Next Christians.
Despite the complexity of it all, Lyons provides a brilliant assessment of Christians in America that will enlighten our discussion on evangelicalism and the interfaith movement, and I’d like to jump right in.
Lyons describes two major types of American Christian, each followed by more specific sub-types: “separatist” (including “insiders,” “culture warriors” and “evangelizers”) and “culturalist” (including “blenders” and “philanthropists”). I’ll unpack each of these as we discuss this analysis in light of the interfaith movement. I’ll begin with the label that best describes my childhood: the insiders.
In general, I grew up an insider. My favorite time of the week was Sunday night youth group, with Wednesday night dinners at church coming in a close second. My friends were almost entirely from the church crowd – and in a small congregation like ours, that meant I hung out with the kids from the five or six families I saw every Sunday morning.
My first CD purchase was a Jars of Clay album, and for a while I owned nearly all of the Steven Curtis Chapman albums (or at least the ones that had been released since I was born…). I had the WWJD? wristband, the cheesy Christian slogan t-shirt, and a set of home-made Bible verse magnets I had created on the computer. Sounding familiar to anyone?
As an insider, I lacked a sense of the religious diversity around me. When I thought of the brown-skinned guy in my reading class, I thought that being Arab and Muslim were the same thing. When the Thai girl in my homeroom was teased for being Buddhist, I didn’t even think of speaking up.
As an insider, I didn’t care about my classmate’s beliefs and traditions. To me, the only real world was the world of the church. I still can’t remember how I conceptualized a lifestyle centered on a different god, or, for that matter, the absence of one. It didn’t matter to me, almost as if those people didn’t have any real depth – as if they lacked real values. And although I was involved in community service throughout high school, the “why?” discussion about the motivation behind the action didn’t matter to me. I didn’t realize that others might cite reasons to serve that were different from my own.
It is incredible to see how my lifestyle – and my faith – has changed from being an insider. From eagerly awaiting each day spent at church (Wednesdays and Sundays) as an elementary school kid to finding excuses to skip campus fellowship meetings in college because I was increasingly irritated with the lack of interest in what was happening outside of our doors – people in need of restoration, relationships we were called – as Christians, as “restorers” – to build (a major theme in Next Christians).
It was when I came across interfaith dialogue that I realized there was so much more to people than what I observed from within my cultural “bubble.” It was also when I learned that Jesus called me to sacrificial service that I began to care why others were driven to serve as well.
Yet I still encounter the insiders. And the lack of interest in interfaith cooperation is all too familiar. It makes me wonder if the bubble which makes us comfortable on the inside is also keeping the “outsiders” out.