I am an evangelical Christian. If you’re a regular reader here, you already know that.
We can argue about what being an evangelical Christian means, or even if it means anything at all (a professor of religion recently told me that it doesn’t mean anything at all, as you can imagine I really loved that — insert eye roll here). The long and short of it for me is that I want everyone to be in relationship with Jesus, know the love and grace of God, and that I believe when it’s all said and done, some will enter the Kingdom of God, and some will not. It also means I take the scriptures to be the true Word of God (yes Word with a capital “W”) and I also really dig contemporary Christian worship.
It confounds Christians and non-Christians alike why I – an evangelical Christian – would even bother with interfaith cooperation. For those new to the interfaith conversation, one of the guidelines of interfaith events and dialogue is that we will not proselytize. In other words, to be a participant in a formal interfaith project or dialogue there is an agreement that those participating will not try to convert each other. It has to be a space for people to learn, gain insight, and build relationships. If you’re trying to convert someone, you’re usually not trying to hear their story, learn about their worldview and you’re definitely into promoting whatever truth you hold dear.
Proselytism (or to use Christian lingo – evangelism) is important to my spiritual practice. It’s important to a lot of other peoples’ practice as well (those who belong to ISKON, certain Muslim communities, heck – even to some atheists!). The Interfaith Movement is not about watering down identity or praxis. It is into “pluralism” – positive engagement between people of different religious and non-religious identities. So difference is key here, and authenticity is important as well. So to agree to this guideline of no proselytism at an interfaith event, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily agreeing to it in every aspect of your life.
I don’t mean to make this sound simple or easy. It is complex and challenging to be a person who understands evangelism to be important and who understands interfaith cooperation and dialogue to be important. But for me, nothing worth doing is easy – I love nuance and mystery and complexity – all of these things are ingredients to a great adventure, and interfaith cooperation and dialogue are nothing short of an adventure.
All of that being said – I think there are some things that the interfaith movement can do to be more open to those of us for whom evangelism (or proselytism) is central to our praxis – (Note: these don’t apply only to Christian evangelicals):
1 – Create a Safe Space: Most interfaith dialogue I have been a part of sets up a “safe space” before engaging in dialogue. I know we do at just about every event we do at the UNF Interfaith Center. As I mentioned before, there is a guideline within the movement that participants will not try to convert others. I think that’s great for these types of events, however when you are explaining this guideline to your group, be sure to use positive language when talking about proselytism. Evangelicals are not ignorant of the negative connotation evangelism has for many people. In order to keep the evangelicals (or other faith groups who might also proselytize) from feeling defensive be sure to affirm evangelism as something that is positive for many people and that you’re not asking them to give up evangelism altogether, but to simply suspend it for your time together.
2 – Make sure everyone in the room knows it’s okay to disagree. Often time outsiders think interfaith cooperation is all about how “we’re all the same.” While I do think talking about our similarities is important, particularly for creating common ground and building relationships, sometimes evangelicals can be made to feel like the “bad guy” because they’re not willing to say “all beliefs are created equal.” For evangelicals (and many other faith identities) it is important for them to feel okay about the fact that they believe Jesus is the one and only savior, and the only way to the Kingdom is through him. If pluralism really is about engaging people of different religious and non-religious identities – it has to be okay for us to disagree. I am not saying you should let people be disrespectful during your dialogue – this is why “I-statements” and other Safe Space Guidelines are important. (You can go here for more information on Safe Space guidelines.
3 – Give evangelicals opportunities to talk about their faith. If you haven’t noticed, evangelicals LOVE to talk about their faith and of course, about Jesus. Yes, it is very important for evangelicals to hear about the faith and beliefs of others. Arguably, evangelicals don’t do this enough (does anyone do it enough??). That being said, evangelicals are going to feel a lot better about what your interfaith group is doing if they’re being given equal opportunity to share. It seems like it should go without saying, but it doesn’t. Because evangelicals are viewed to be the “religious majority” in our country, in my experience, it is often the case that evangelicals are expected to take a backseat in interfaith dialogue. The truth is, just like any religious/non-religious identity, there is a lot of misunderstanding about evangelicals – particularly around their views of salvation. Evangelicalism is incredibly diverse, and it is becoming a more and more complicated identity every day. So why not give an evangelical Christian an opportunity to dissect some of those misunderstandings? At the interfaith center where I work we have an event called Coffee and Conversation where we give students, faculty, staff and community members an opportunity to talk about their identity. We set up Safe Space Guidelines, the speaker talks for about 15 minutes, and then we open up for questions for the remainder of the hour. I have found them to be an incredibly meaningful experience for the speakers and a great opportunity for the participants to deconstruct stereotypes and misunderstanding while building relationships with people of different religious and non-religious identities.
As the Interfaith Movement grows it will be increasingly important for us to find new ways to communicate with each other. As the movement becomes more diverse, we’ll also have to find new ways to be as inclusive as possible. If you’re struggling to get evangelicals involved in your interfaith programming – feel free to peruse our blog or contact us!