I’m interrupting my series on “Five types of Christians” inspired by The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons to present a narrative of my interaction with another evangelical on campus earlier this year. This story leads nicely into my next article in this series and I hope you too will find it interesting to catch a glimpse of this man’s approach to communicating the gospel.
The front of Kevin's business card
The University of Illinois kicks off the fall semester with Quad Day. The marching band plays, the flags and dancers perform; 6’ x 8’ booths line the walkways where student organizations set up shop to recruit new students and re-enlist the returners.
Kevin* was a part of the festivities as well, even though he’s not a student. And even though it was the day before syllabus day – exams wouldn’t start for another 4-5 weeks – Kevin had a test to administer: the Good Test.
Armed with freshly-printed, glossy business cards, I can only imagine that Kevin felt a few butterflies as he arrived at the quad this year. His task would require some courage, I suppose, stepping out of the comfort zone to make a difference…
At some point, Kevin ran into my friend Adam, and started a conversation.
My friend Adam is an atheist – perhaps exactly the kind of person Kevin was looking for. But somehow, the two just weren’t clicking. Of course, the fact that Kevin found Adam at the Interfaith in Action booth was probably a little bit confusing. Adam wasn’t there to claim that all religions lead to a common truth, or that he was okay with people believing whatever they wanted to believe. In fact, Adam disagrees fundamentally with the religious people he encounters (“one of my favorite things is debate” Adam likes to say).
Perhaps this caught Kevin off-guard. Or he perhaps he didn’t know how to have this conversation in the first place. But as I listened in, I observed Adam explaining interfaith dialogue, Kevin asking questions – trying, unsuccessfully, to get to a topic that would segue to The Good Test.
That’s when Adam punted to me.
“It’s funny,” Adam explained, clearly looking for an escape route “because my friend Greg is actually an evangelical too.”
I shook Kevin’s hand and we stepped to the side.
“So tell me about your background.”
Kevin stammered a few words, clearly a little flustered, possibly because he just encountered an evangelical at the interfaith table.
“Like, what denomination did you grow up in?” I tried to save him the embarrassment.
His specific response isn’t important, but I wanted to be sure he was coming from a Biblically-rooted theology and that he wasn’t far-out, like a member of the Westborough Baptist Church who had gotten lost on his way back from the latest protest. He sounded legit to me.
“So, like Adam said, interfaith cooperation is the idea that people from different religious and non-religious traditions can work together for the common good while integrating a discussion about values.” I said, also struggling to segue to my central thesis. “Like, we often have a dialogue around the question: ‘why do you serve?’ which, to me, is an invitation to talk about Jesus. I think it’s actually unique way to do evangelism, even though it’s a little bit of a different approach.” I didn’t want to tell him yet that I thought it was a better approach. We’ll see where this goes.
So Kevin and I dialogued. We were respectful of each other, but I found myself choosing my language carefully. It’s funny how interfaith dialogue experience has even equipped me for talking to other Christians.
“So where do you see the direction in the scriptures to do interfaith work?” Kevin said, finally landing at the heart of the matter.
“In the example of Christ,” I explained, “it’s interesting because when I think of the ministry of Jesus, I recognize major themes of service, storytelling** and relationships. Coincidentally, that’s what the interfaith movement is all about: service, storytelling and relationships. My experience suggests that, if you want to communicate the gospel, a relationship is the best means for doing so.”
But I didn’t have Kevin convinced. “Really? I think otherwise. I mean, it’s easiest to evangelize to someone you don’t even know because, well, if they say ‘no’ then you have nothing to lose.”
Not as brave as I thought.
He was also hung up on his image.
“I’m actually most concerned with, for example, serving alongside a Mormon or a Catholic,” he said. “I wouldn’t want people to assume I’m the same as them.”
The back of Kevin's business card
To the contrary, the interfaith movement has taught me that religious literacy highlights helps explain the differences between traditions, clarifying on misconceptions that lead many into assuming one thing or another about a particular tradition. I tried to articulate this, but he seemed stubbornly committed to the idea that no interaction was the only way to maintain singularity.
I began to get lost in his explanations of how he refused to shake hands with a Mormon or a Catholic because of the risk of creating the perception that he approved of their theological perspectives.
“And besides, I would rather not serve at all than to risk someone thinking I’m theologically the same as a Mormon. It’s more important to evangelize than to serve, and I wouldn’t want to lose any credibility because of the service.”
My heart sank.
I handed Kevin one of my business cards and invited him to continue our discussion on Faith Line Protestants. Kevin, the invitation is still open: if you happen to be reading, now that I’ve made a point of our interaction, I invite you to offer up your perspective in this important discussion.
Before parting ways with Adam, Kevin handed him his own business card. It read: “The Good Test” on one side, with fine print on the back.
“I feel like it’s my duty,” Kevin explained.
Finally, I extended my hand. He shook it, turned, and walked away.
*name changed intentionally
**note on the repeated use of “storytelling” to describe Jesus’ ministry: I don’t mean to simplify the words of Christ to traditional storytelling, but simply to adopt the language of interfaith dialogue to strengthen the parallel. Jesus’ storytelling includes parables and sermons that, in my experience, are the source of the storytelling that fuels the interfaith movement.