I’ve been working in the interfaith field for 6 years, and as someone who identifies as a born again Christian, here’s the question I get most often: “But what about evangelicals and proselytizing? Can evangelicals be involved in interfaith work if their faith calls them to convert others?”
Here’s the short answer: Yes.
My long answer on the why and how:
Evangelicals must be involved in interfaith initiatives. Evangelicals can be a HUGE resource and value added to your interfaith work on campuses and in your community. At the Interfaith Youth Core, where I work, we have a pretty big audacious mission: to make interfaith cooperation a social norm within a generation. And if we want to achieve that mission, we have to have evangelicals on board. They make up a sizeable amount of the population in this country and have profound influence in our culture. In my experience many evangelical folks will want to be involved in interfaith work but don’t feel like they are welcome – so it’s important to make it clear that evangelicals are wanted and needed at the table of interfaith cooperation.
Define what interfaith work is – and what it isn’t. Frankly, “interfaith” can be a scary word to anyone concerned that they might have to compromise their faith. At IFYC, we define interfaith as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. That means that you don’t have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation – whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist, you don’t have to compromise what you believe (or what you don’t believe) to engage in interfaith work. We may not agree about who gets into heaven, or if heaven exists at all. We may be divided across political lines. But we can all agree that homelessness is a problem in our community and we should tackle it together because when we start from a place of shared values and combine our social capital, we are better together. The service approach is what’s key here – many of my evangelical friends would be perfectly comfortable serving alongside folks of different religious and nonreligious traditions, but wouldn’t feel comfortable at an interfaith worship service where they felt like they couldn’t pray in the name of Jesus.
Affirm the importance of evangelizing. When talking with evangelical groups, affirm that evangelizing is a key component of their religious beliefs and practices (Mark 16:15). Evangelizing, however, is only one way that religious traditions teach their followers how to interact with others. When you engage in interfaith action and service, this is an opportunity to engage another part of your religious identity – like feeding the hungry – which I believe as Christians we have a very clear biblical mandate to do (Matthew 25: 35-40). Evangelical Christian religious practice is more dynamic than simply trying to convert others.
Make it clear that interfaith work isn’t the place for proselytizing. There are many places where proselytizing is appropriate, but interfaith work is not one of them. Being involved in interfaith service is bringing people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together to be partners in making the world a better place. In this setting, proselytizing may get in the way of allowing cooperation to happen because people may feel as though their existing identity is not being respected or even heard.
Emphasize opportunities interfaith work gives to share your tradition. When I talk with my evangelical friends about getting involved in interfaith work, I emphasize that just because you aren’t proselytizing doesn’t mean that you aren’t sharing your faith. Interfaith work does provide the opportunity for people to live out the core tenants of their religious or nonreligious values and empowers them to speak openly about how their religious or philosophical convictions motivate their life. For some, this is also a form of bearing witness. For example, in doing interfaith work I’ve had the opportunity to talk about Jesus and how my faith inspires me to countless non-Christians on a daily basis.
To my evangelical friends – it can be challenging for to suspend evangelism when interacting with someone who is not Christian, I but assure you the payoff is worth it. You are an important and needed voice at the table of interfaith cooperation.
To my non-evangelical friends and colleagues in the interfaith movement – I understand it can be hard sometimes to trust folks in the evangelical community, but I assure you the payoff is worth it. I encourage you to reach out to evangelical communities and engage them in interfaith cooperation.