Author Archives: Greg Damhorst

A more compelling truth

I wanted to share a quick thought from worship this morning that effectively reiterates the number one lesson I’ve learned while writing this blog during the last year.

Today’s discussion wrapped up a multi-week series on Ephesians with verses 6:10-20 which discusses the “Armor of God.” In his commentary on verse 15:

and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace

the speaker landed on a point that I will paraphrase below:

When I present the gospel, people don’t disagree with me because it’s wrong. They disagree with me because I haven’t presented a more compelling truth.

I think that this idea follows logically, and necessarily, from believing the authority of the Bible as truth. As a Christian, I believe that I must be ready to communicate that truth. My observation, however, is that the majority of our efforts to present that truth, including many of the ways I learned to “do evangelism” growing up, fall painfully short of presenting the full truth – and often with negative consequences. Take the Harold Camping approach, for example, or the culture warriors or the evangelizers that Gabe Lyons discusses.

Based on my experience and my own spiritual journey, I contend that I have never found a better opportunity to present the whole compelling truth of the gospel than in the context of relationships facilitated by interfaith dialogue. Why? Because the interfaith movement is built on three basic principles: service, storytelling and relationships. Activities which, for a Christian, are exactly in stride with the ministry of Christ.

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From Ghana to West Virginia: Lessons about the Kingdom

I wrote this piece during a recent visit to Cape Coast, Ghana as part of an observational experience with the Global Health Initiative at the University of Illinois.

It’s a 10 hour flight between Washington D.C. and Accra, Ghana, giving me ample time to notice the group of twenty on the plane in front of me wearing matching t-shirts. The group displayed alternating colors of light blue and lime green and a logo that read “Kingdom Expansion” across their left breast.

They were from somewhere in West Virginia. And they got me thinking.

My first reaction was cynical. I was about to embark on an academic journey relevant to my graduate research, medical training, and interest in global health. As such, I initially felt some sort of self-righteous superiority, thinking back to my own “matching t-shirt” experience (ours were bright blue) —a “Go & Serve” mission trip to Jamaica when I was a freshman in high school—and feeling as though the current context of my travel was more sophisticated this time around.

To be honest, I assumed this “Kingdom Expansion” group was out to convert the people of Ghana to Christianity. And though that’s not something I believe to be a bad thing, the way in which I imagined them implementing their evangelism strategy left me feeling a combination of embarrassment and anxiety.

Keep in mind: this is all going on in my head. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions.

So what was this group of brightly-clothed Christians who, for some reason, I didn’t trust to communicate the gospel effectively and respectfully, really out do to? Many of them were rough, middle-aged guys who had donned work boots and jeans with their uniform t-shirts for the 10 hours of backache-producing absence of legroom. So in reality, all clues pointed to a crew ready to build a house or fix a school – not the insensitive street-corner evangelicals I was afraid of, always ready to talk but never willing to listen.

Several days later I’m flipping through my pocket-sized Bible by the light of the single light bulb in my hotel room, the West Virginia group on my mind. I asked myself: Why was I so bitter about a group of Christians set out to “expand the kingdom?” And, more importantly, what does expanding the kingdom really mean?

First I’ll address the bitterness, which comes with a confession. I struggle sometimes to trust other Christians with communicating the gospel because of the prevalence of poorly-directed messages about sin and repentance which present Christ-followers as judgmental, self-righteous, and hypocritical instead of compassionate, humble and authentic. But I realize that I lacked any real knowledge about their intentions, and had based everything only on their matching t-shirts and rugged footwear. Needless to say, I realized that my concerns were irrational.

Meditating on the reality of that irrationality brought me quickly to reflection on the kingdom.

You see, I’m convinced that God calls me to a career in academia. The university best positions me with my strengths and gifts to serve the least of these and to work for the expansion of the kingdom of God. But it’s not an infrequent temptation to accept the irrational sense that other callings are less significant or Christ-centered than my own. And while my passion for God’s calling has me convinced that God’s plan for me is the most incredible thing in the world, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that the central concept defining kingdom-expansion is broader than my own past, present, or future experience. In short, it’s bigger than me.

So somewhere in the process of thumbing through New Testament parables and puzzling over their meaning, I realized that the understanding for which I had been searching was hiding in plain sight.

But the answer is not about where you look; it’s about how you look at it. I learned that the answer can be seen in Ghana on the shack-lined dirt roads through which open sewers run, and in the clinics where medical supplies are scarce and good doctors even scarcer. And it can be seen in the eyes of children – some malnourished, sick or barely clothed – who respond with a mix of curiosity and excitement to the appearance of a foreign face.

In Ghana, there are so many opportunities to love. It’s a concept so plain that it could fit in a text message:

“Love one another,” he said. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34).

Interfaith work has taught me that loving others involves getting to know people personally – learning each person’s story and the philosophy that has both driven that story and been formed by it.

I think I was afraid that my fellow passengers from West Virginia weren’t aware of that lesson, and that their efforts at expanding the kingdom would suffer as a result. But something has reminded me that I shouldn’t assume they haven’t realized that Jesus valued relationships.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and the West Virginia crew will be on my flight home as well. Then I can ask them what they were doing to expand the kingdom in Ghana, and I’ll be careful this time not to make assumptions. Because although we’re provided with a rather ubiquitous model for love in the character of Christ, implementing that concept probably looks different for a second-year MD/PhD student from Illinois than it does for rugged guy from West Virginia.

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What do we call ourselves?

I really enjoyed this from Skye Jethani: Why Are There No “Christians” on Twitter?

He notes that in his wanderings of Twitter profiles, “Very few used the word Christian, and no one used the word Evangelical” to describe themselves.

And then he brings up a great point, which is that “Evangelical is applied so broadly that few seem to believe it holds much meaning,” which presents an interesting issue to our discussion of evangelicals and the interfaith movement.

To add to Skye’s point, my Twitter profile identifies me by my activities and not explicitly by my faith:

MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois. Leading @globalhealthIL, co-founder of @flprotestants, long-time @uiucinterfaith enthusiast.

But I resonate with Skye’s point that the term evangelical is tricky – it seems to carry a lot of baggage in addition to holding a rather vague definition. What’s interesting to me is that I’m most comfortable calling myself an evangelical in the interfaith setting. Why?

Because I know that folks who do interfaith work aren’t going to immediately jump to conclusions based on how I describe my faith. Outside of an interfaith context, I don’t have that luxury: I fear that people will jump to conclusions and ascribe certain qualities based on some of the more prominent (and abrasive) so-called evangelicals. I’ve talked about this a little bit in the past.

At the end of the day, I’m interested in showing people the characteristics of the compassionate, loving example I follow in Jesus and to communicate the message of the gospel in the same manner. I hope that choosing to call myself an evangelical won’t lead people to jump to negative conclusions about my character before I have a chance to do that.

Perhaps this is just another reason why we need more evangelicals doing interfaith work. It’s also another example of why actions must speak louder than words.

In case you missed the link, Skye’s blog is here: http://www.skyejethani.com/why-are-there-no-%E2%80%9Cchristians%E2%80%9D-on-twitter/1204/

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Kicking off a new year… two months late

I opened up an e-mail last night that has been sitting in my inbox for a while, waiting for a reply. I was shocked when I realized it was dated from January 22nd. If you know me, you know that I usually keep up with these things, but on this particular incident I dropped the ball. So where did the last month go?

For me it’s been a whirlwind of the usual mixed with a little unusual. I returned from Ghana over a month ago after leading a group of 18 other graduate students and faculty on an observational trip as part of the University of Illinois’ new Global Health Initiative. It turned out to be a perspective-shifting experience for me as I started to think about God’s calling for my life – but more on that later.

As far as I can tell, Cameron is currently occupied with the undergraduates’ greatest stressor: the Senior Thesis. Add a side of part-time job and applying to seminary for dessert and you have a complete meal with more than your daily recommended value of stress, writer’s block and sleepless nights.

Yet as busy as we have been, the time has never been more crucial for our attention to the interfaith movement.

And it’s not just because Tebow-Mania gave way to Linsanity before I really noticed that the NFL season was over or because we’re starting to feel the heat of an election year and faith identity continues to be a central issue. Instead, it’s because of the things that are happening on college campuses right now that are going to shape the way we talk about devout athletes and presidential candidates in 5, 10, 15 years.

While I was sweating away the hours between clinics and hospitals in a cramped van on dirt roads in southern Ghana, hundreds of undergraduate student leaders gathered at Emory University in Atlanta for another Interfaith Leadership Institute – learning to lead a conversation about cooperation on their campuses, suggesting that people of diverse faith backgrounds are Better Together when we gather around issues that we all care about, like fighting hunger or speaking out against human trafficking.

As an evangelical Christian watching the discourse around Jeremy Lin take place, I realized that I am not interested in a popular culture where being passionate about Jesus just adds spectacle to an already bizarre situation, like stepping up from bench-warmer to break-out star in a matter of days. But the student leaders who gathered in Atlanta this winter are having a different kind of conversation, where they are talking about building respect and understanding, and talking about similarities and differences in a way that better enables us to address great human need.

And I’ve heard from some of those young leaders, including a student at North Park University and another at Gordon College. While both institutions are rooted in Christian traditions, their students are diverse and I am excited to see the ways that the interfaith movement takes hold on those campuses.

Of course Cameron and I have ambitious plans to build on the conversation on FLP this semester including featuring some new voices and perspectives. But what’s got us really excited is where all these inspiring student leaders are going to be at the end of this semester, more specifically April 20-22nd.

They’re going to be here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the first ever Illinois Conference on Interfaith Cooperation. And so will Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, as well as several other special guests here to talk about interfaith cooperation on college campuses, best practices, challenges and successes in the work we’ve been a part of.

So you can look forward to that as well. Actually, you could even be there. Check out www.illinoisinterfaithservice.org to register.

There is good stuff coming, so stay tuned –

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A new paradigm

I came across this article in an e-mail from John Morehead, Director of the Evangelical Christian chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. And although it was published two years ago, I think it continues to be a valid statement to call this a “new” paradigm of Christian and non-Christian dialogue.

So after an assessment of what the old paradigm of dialogue was, you get to the author’s description of the new paradigm and some things really resonate.

First, in setting a place at the table, so to speak, for evangelicals to participate:

No longer do partners seek the lowest common denominator between traditions, but rather embrace and encourage differences. This move against the relativistic tendencies of the old paradigm encourages a more robust dialogue in which each party brings to the discussion what they believe to be binding truth, whether or not those truths are universal among traditions. In this kind of model, exclusivist views are valued, not discouraged.

And then, in the outcomes of taking a dialogue-based approach to sharing the faith:

Having more respect for other religions opens up venues for interfaith dialogue to occur and for relationships to be formed based upon trust, love, and compassion.

There are plenty of compelling reasons, in a world marked too frequently by conflict, violence, and bigotry, to be committed to interfaith relationships based on trust, love, and compassion. But the author also reminds us that these relationships are an approach to a “missionary activity” that is central to the Christian tradition.

Then again, relationships based on genuine trust, love, and compassion communicate aspects of the gospel insomuch that they emulate and demonstrate the character of Christ that perhaps no effective effort at evangelism can afford to be without…

Link to article: http://www.lausanneworldpulse.com/perspectives.php/1224/01-2010?pg=all

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5 Types of Christians: Restorers (Part 6 of 6)

This article is part 6 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 see the links below for past articles.


Over the past month I’ve posted a series of five articles to this blog discussing five types of Christians as they are described in Gabe Lyons’ book The Next Christians. I’ve attempted to identify the problems each category of Christians encounters with respect to the interfaith movement. Some Christians take an approach that leads to an abrasive interaction with the world: we must fight for laws that reflect biblical values, fight for the acknowledgement of the God of the Bible in public spaces, or fight for the souls of our lost neighbors. This approach doesn’t cultivate relationships with people who have different perspectives – just disagreement.

Other Christians prefer to avoid friction at all costs. They seek to blend in with the rest of society or to let faith only manifest as acts of service and generosity – something with which no one can really disagree. Life can go smoothly that way, or so it seems.

But there’s something to be gained from taking a different approach – a sixth type, if you will. Something that involves a thorough assessment of the way that Jesus interacted with the world around him – and an understanding of the message he preached. So I return to words I’ve written in the past:

Jesus preached the gospel, which is to say the he preached the good news, and this good news was about something – it was about the Kingdom of God.

So Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God.

And that good news is about restoration. So we might call those who live under the influence of the kingdom restorers.

Gabe Lyons says:

“I call them restorers because they envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision. Restorers seek to mend earth’s brokenness. They recognize that the world will not be completely healed until Christ’s return, but they believe that the process begins now as we partner with God. Through sowing seeds of restoration, they believe others will see Christ through us and the Christian faith will reap a much larger harvest.”

Lyons’ description of the restorer’s vision reminds me of Scot McKnight’s description of the kingdom: “By kingdom, Jesus means: God’s Dream Society on earth” – the way the world was meant to be.

So as Christians – as restorers – we are part of a narrative that is as old as history itself. It’s a story in which a broken world longs to be restored and where followers of Jesus play a role in that restoration. It’s a story in which restoration is sought at the level of societies, communities, and relationships – including each individual’s relationship with God.

As a Christian, when you realize what it means to be a restorer life is no longer only about whether you’re going to heaven or hell. It’s about serving others. It’s about relationships. It’s about peace. The dialogue and service that comprise the interfaith movement are a part of that – and they provide a platform for communicating the message of the kingdom holistically.

In the realization of what it means to be a restorer, there is a call to action. And it includes a call to step out of your comfort zone to make real relationships with people with drastically different backgrounds, to work together with people of the same faith and different faiths to address areas of great need, and to stand up against ignorance and bigotry. It’s a call to try to look at the world through God’s eyes, to ask how things were meant to be, and to work to advance the kingdom.

Articles in this series:
Part 1: The insiders
Part 2: The culture warriors
Part 3: The evangelizers
Part 4: The blenders
Part 5: The philanthropists
Part 6: Restorers

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What’s Lowe’s Got to Do with It?

At this point I shouldn’t have to explain much about the controversy surrounding Lowe’s this past week. And I also probably don’t need to spend much time dwelling on the fact that Lowe’s decision to cut its ads from the TLC show All-American Muslim is troubling. In fact, many have already commented on this, including my friends Eboo Patel, Chris Stedman (who seemed to lead the charge on twitter), and many others.

But in addition to adding my voice to the many who are affirming dissapointment in Lowe’s, I wanted to look at the situation from a different angle – one most appropriate for commentary from an evangelical.

Because, as disappointing as Lowe’s decision is, the truth is that I am more disappointed by the Florida Family Association (FFA), an organization that aims to “educate people on what they can do to defend, protect and promote traditional, biblical values” and claims that the TLC show “is propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law.

Yet I struggle to find how bigotry reflects biblical values. So I’d like to reflect on a few thoughts that occurred to me as I learned about the Florida Family Association’s statements that triggered the Lowe’s controversy. Here we go:

1. These Christians don’t know Muslims

I too am opposed to extremism. But as a Christian I believe that fighting extremism requires cooperation, not marginalization. If the Christians leading the FFA knew the Muslims in their community, I am convinced that they would be compelled to work together to address concerns about the threat of extremism in America. It has been well-voiced by the Muslim community – particularly during the past decade – that Islamic extremists do not represent the Islamic tradition. Take Eboo Patel as an example, who says that extremists “don’t deserve the title Muslim” in an interview on ABC (embedded at the end of this post).

2. These Christians aren’t just opposed to extremism, they’re also opposed to Muslims.

While the FFA cites concern that All-American Muslim is propaganda designed to counter concerns about Islamic fundamentalism, I don’t buy the premise that the world is undereducated about the existence of extremists. In fact, the problem is exactly the opposite: the general public is so familiar with images of burning effigies and burning buildings – and so undereducated about the existence of moderate Muslims – that they believe extremists like al-Qaeda to represent all Muslims. The actions of the FFA only make sense to me if the organization is set on opposing Islam – not just Islamic extremists.

3. These Christians are out of touch with our diverse reality.

The FFA seems to believe that The Learning Channel is portraying Muslims as typical American families while “excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.” Or as Eboo Patel puts it: the FFA was “disappointed that the show didn’t offer enough airtime to Muslim extremists.” The only way I can understand a reason why the FFA would make such an absurd claim is that either (a) the FFA is substantially out of touch with the current paradigm of reality television or (b) I was right on with point number 2. Does the FFA really need a reminder that it’s impossible to represent every person who calls him or herself a Muslim cannot possibly in just 5 hour-long episodes?

4. What the world needs is dialogue.

This controversy has led me to reflect on how I learned the valuable lesson not to assume one individual is an accurate representation of a whole group. I also got to thinking about the reason why I believe most Muslim communities to be not only peaceful and anti-extremism, but also intelligent, inspiring, and pro-active in meeting the needs of their communities.

I owe the credit for learning these lessons to interfaith dialogue.

It’s time for Christian communities of all styles to consider what kind of a world we want to live in. Do we want a world where harsh and ignorant statements trigger controversy that is continually traced back to so-called followers of Christ? Or do we want a world where we can sit together, serve together, and learn from one another without blurring the lines between our traditions but still getting to know one another?

It’s only through this coming together that Christians have the opportunity to show people of other faith traditions what following Jesus is really about – including what it means to live with biblical values. I just pray that the Florida Family Association learns this lesson before stirring up another embarrassing controversy that reflects poorly on those who are striving to follow the simple command to love one another.

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I should really be studying…

The title says it all. But since I’ve failed all evening to focus on memorizing the list of 50 some pathogenic bacteria that sits in front of me, what does another minute or two matter?

I’m really looking forward to posting the last piece in my “5 types of Christians” series that I’ve been slowly publishing over the past month or so. And if you’re attentive, you may have realized by now that, since the series has 6 parts and I’ve already discussed 5 “types,” there’s a surprise 6th “type” coming!

And that type will likely launch us into a recurring theme about what it means to be a “restorer” in a religiously diverse world (a concept that has really helped me find the words to both describe and understand my faith ever since I picked up Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christians).

But unfortunately that discussion has to wait until exams are over.

In the meantime, I was excited to learn today that North Park University (the institution affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church – the denomination in which I was grew up) has been participating in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge! Check it out on page 6 of the North Parker Magazine.

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