Author Archives: Greg Damhorst

Learning from our Muslim neighbors during Ramadan

As I often say, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to move toward relationships with those who are marginalized, dehumanized, and in need of love. We don’t compromise our faith by hanging out with people we may or may not agree with. No, in fact, we reflect the very best of our faith.

From Jon Huckins at Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog: http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/07/29/ramadan-shared-table-and-following-jesus

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Why Millenials are Leaving the Church

Relates in some ways to my featured piece this week. From Rachel Held Evans:

We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

Read the article at http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church/.

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When doing the Christian thing isn’t the right thing

707084_12414975I used to be a Bible study leader.

And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

 

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campustown, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy which gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

 

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.

There is a certain logic among many Christians which says that it is necessary to proselytize on account of our tradition’s teaching that our truth is exclusive. Because our exclusive truth teaches us that the consequence is damnation for those who do not subscribe, we feel we must convince others of our truth. At all costs. At any length. Whatever it takes. To not do so, we reason, would be unloving.

I happen to agree – to a certain extent – with this logic. But I also happen to disagree with where this logic has led many Christians: to the notion that we must be aggressive, abrasive, disrespectful and judgmental.

I believe that the problem evangelicalism faces today is that we have forgotten the very example that we claim to follow. The example of a servant, preacher, and prophet who was a friend of those that religious leaders considered sinners and outcasts. In fact, Jesus seemed to value relationships over regulations and rituals, whether that relationship was with someone of a different tradition, someone society hated, or someone religious leaders considered immoral.

What we Christians fail to see is that the most important way to relate to a person who believes differently is not to convince them of how they are wrong, which we have tried with every method available—approaches which ironically seem to make our message even less convincing. What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).

But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader.

I credit two people with teaching me how to communicate the Gospel. One of them is a Christian living in the slums of Philadelphia, and the other is a Muslim.

So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.

And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.

And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there’s a good chance that you’ve convinced them all of something about the Gospel.

 

This piece originally appeared at Sojourners.

Image credit.

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Chris Stedman on Q Ideas: “Want to talk to Non-Christians?”

Chris Stedman offers some valuable insight from an atheist perspective on Q Ideas. I could probably write an entire blog post about each of his six points. What really struck a chord this morning:

Recently, I participated in an interfaith dialogue with someone who responded to my bristling at evangelizing by saying:
But, Chris, it strikes me that the problem there is with the definition of evangelization. If we think of that word as a synonym of hectoring and finger wagging and a holier than thou attitude, I completely agree with you. But what if evangelization is itself a mutually enriching dialogue in which the promises of the Church (that is, of Christ) are put forward as proposals, as encounters, not as edicts? Then we are taking about the manner, not the fact, of evangelization, aren’t we?

He is absolutely right. This is a distinction that I am hearing articulated more and more often by members of religious communities that see evangelizing as central to their faith—and it is one I welcome with gratitude. Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate a more productive dialogue. That will require listening from both sides and recognizing we have much to learn from one another. For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.

From my perspective, you’ve captured it precisely, Chris. I asked in a recent blog post:

And we have been asking what would happen if we approached our friends who are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Sikhs and Buddhists with the same humility that Jesus modeled. What if there was a way to talk about faith in which we could communicate respectfully and authentically? What if we found ourselves in a situation where we not only talked about compassion, but we also practiced it by serving alongside those we’ve been taught to try to convert, asking questions, and sharing stories?

Would it water-down our message? Or would it strengthen it?

For me, as an evangelical, this is the promise of interfaith engagement. We don’t need to not evangelize to get along. instead we need to rethink evangelism. And when you really look at the Christian tradition of evangelism and you ask what is effective, what really communicates the message we Christians want to get across… The gospel I know can’t be communicated by hectoring and finger wagging.

If we evangelicals really step back and look at the way Jesus did things, I think we can identify three themes: service, storytelling and relationships. Those also happen to be the core principles of the interfaith movement. So if that’s how Jesus communicated the gospel, isn’t that how Christians should also? For me it’s a no-brainer.

Read Chris’s whole piece at Q Ideas: http://www.qideas.org/blog/can-christians-and-atheists-be-friends-this-atheists-thinks-so.aspx

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Chris Stedman at Chautauqua

“In the words of native novelist and scholar Thomas King, ‘The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,’ ” Stedman said. “Want a different ethic? Tell a different story. So let’s tell a different story about our religious differences. And let’s be sure that the nonreligious are a part of this conversation.”

It sounds like they have quite the lineup at Chautauqua Institution. Check out this summary of Chris Stedman’s talk http://chqdaily.com/2013/07/05/stedman-lets-be-sure-the-nonreligious-are-a-part-of-this-conversation/.

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Shane Claiborne on love

Claiborne claimed that Christians sometimes have been the biggest obstacle of bringing God’s love to the world — they have had too much to say with their mouths and so little to show of God’s love with their lives.

Shane Claiborne hits the nail on the head, addressing the perception of Christians and the need to communicate love. http://chqdaily.com/2013/07/07/claiborne-calls-for-christianity-to-be-loving-again/

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A different kind of conversation

You may be familiar with a narrative in which Christians don’t play nice with other people. Evangelicals in particular can be an aggressive bunch, always seeking the last word or the loudest voice, and it often hasn’t reflected well on those who identify as followers of Jesus. But as one of those followers of Jesus, I have hope that the narrative can change.

My friend Cameron Nations and I founded Faith Line Protestants in a coffee shop on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign nearly three years ago. It was the result of mutual experiences with interfaith cooperation and a shared sense that the Christian tradition does not always get it right. We fail to have an awareness regarding how to approach people who believe something different than what we believe. We fail to consider the experiences of others, and we fail to respect what others consider sacred.

This lack of awareness has often resulted in a choice to employ communication methods that convey criticism, judgment, and self-righteousness. It seems the younger generation of Jesus followers, myself included, are fed up with awkward encounters and the blow-hard rhetoric which has often taken place from a seat of privilege in our country. We’re a generation that’s asking ourselves if the Jesus we follow would have chosen the same words or even the same message that many Christian leaders are contributing via an ever-increasing number of media outlets. Furthermore, when we look honestly at the Christian scriptures depicting the life of Jesus, we catch a glimpse of a different kind of conversation: something relationship-oriented, kind, and loving.

And we have been asking what would happen if we approached our friends who are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Sikhs and Buddhists with the same humility that Jesus modeled. What if there was a way to talk about faith in which we could communicate respectfully and authentically? What if we found ourselves in a situation where we not only talked about compassion, but we also practiced it by serving alongside those we’ve been taught to try to convert, asking questions, and sharing stories?

Would it water-down our message? Or would it strengthen it?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve realized that there is a toolset available which seems to fit the description of a relationship-oriented approach to communicating the gospel, and it’s called interfaith cooperation. At first it seems counterintuitive for many of us raised in evangelical traditions: I have trained to be a “Contagious Christian”, dabbled in apologetics, and practiced conversion conversations, yet never once did I practice having genuine dialogue.

This week we are re-launching Faith Line Protestants as we seek to reignite enthusiasm for a conversation which encourages evangelical Christians toward relationships with people of other worldviews and faith traditions by engaging in social action based on shared values reflected in Jesus’ example of compassionate love.

And whether you’re skeptical of the concept or you find it refreshing, I hope that you’ll join us in this conversation. We’ve only waded into the shallow waters of a deeper discussion that is already overdue. It’s a discussion that deals with privilege and the common good, equality and bigotry, respect and meaning-making. And for me it all comes back to the realization that the One after whom I strive to model my life was a storyteller, relationship-oriented, and a servant.

I hope you’ll join us as we re-launch this conversation about following Jesus in a religiously diverse world.

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An Evangelical’s Sacred Ground

In summer 2010, a few blocks from Ground Zero, my values were under attack too.

I can still see the image vividly: a white poster board decorated with red and blue markers, as if to suggest its message was patriotic:“All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”Eboo Patel’s new book, Sacred Ground, revisits the scene of Cordoba House to frame a discussion on pluralism and interfaith leadership in America. Eboo offers apt perspective as an American Muslim and director of Interfaith Youth Core, but the discourse that took place around Park Place that summer is not only important for Muslims and interfaith activists.I am an Evangelical Christian, and there is something personal for me at stake in the midst of bigotry that deals precisely with my religious identity. I deliberated over that identity for a time but realized that “evangelical” best describes my understanding of what it means to respond to the Christian gospel and emulate the example of Christ.Yet some of the loudest voices of intolerance call themselves Evangelicals too. Earlier this month, Pat Robertson blamed atheists for the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek. This spring Bryan Fischer publicly attacked the Romney campaign for hiring a gay man. After 9/11, Jerry Fallwell pointed his finger wildly at a wide variety of people who didn’t believe the same things he did.


Yet they call themselves Evangelical Christians.In Sacred Ground, Eboo notes the influence of the evangelical masses in American politics, suggesting that “when Evangelicals change, America changes.” And in many ways he’s right – he cites the Evangelical-led anti-Catholic movement of the 1960 election and draws parallels to present-day islamophobia, which in many ways is led by Evangelical figures.But Evangelicals aren’t a hopeless bunch. That’s why, on the occasions I’ve talked to Christians about interfaith cooperation, I often start with a picture of that man standing on Park Place in lower Manhattan, holding the handwritten sign in blue and red marker.And I ask my fellow Evangelicals: “Is this what you believe?”There is a simple, profound reason why it’s not what I believe. It’s because of relationships. It’s because of working with Muslims in my community to do things like feed the hungry and provide healthcare to the uninsured. And there’s precedence for this, as Eboo notes: relationships between Evangelicals and Catholics explain the shift that has changed attitudes about Catholicism since the 1960’s. But even deeper and more historic than 1960’s America is the example of Jesus Christ: the ethic of loving your neighbor.

I’m thankful for the Evangelical leaders who are setting interfaith relationships as a priority for the Evangelical tradition, from Gabe Lyons, who has created dialogue with the Imam behind Park51, to Jim Wallis and the staff at Sojourners. Not to mention Skye JethaniNicholas PriceBob Roberts and many others who are leading the change.

My prayer is that Evangelical Christianity can shed the rhetoric of criticism and judgment and regain a reputation as a tradition centered on relationships, first our relationship with God, then relationships with neighbors of all traditions. This is why, for Evangelicals, all ground is sacred ground: we’re called always and everywhere to a tradition of relationships that is as old as the Evangelical tradition itself.

This piece was originally posted on the Interfaith Youth Core’s blog.

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