Author Archives: Greg Damhorst

5 Types of Christians: Philanthropists (part 5 of 6)

This article is part 5 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 check back here for part 6 of this series!

The philanthropists (as Gabe Lyons calls them in Next Christians) may be the most compelled toward interfaith work while still lacking a strong call to be evangelical in the interfaith space. After all, the interfaith movement is built on shared values like feeding the hungry, ending oppression, and fighting poverty – activities that are deeply motivated by the Christian tradition.

But while I perhaps identify the most with a philanthropist of any of Gabe Lyons’ categories discussed thus far (by the way, we’re referring to the Christian who is driven to help others, not necessarily the excessively wealthy who make noble donations), the philanthropist lacks the urgency of sharing and spreading the gospel.

Here is how Gabe Lyons describes them:

“Putting an emphasis on doing good works is their defining mark. They serve in soup kitchens, clean garbage off the side of the highway, and help lead Boy Scout troops. One of their highest values is to make the world a better place. Some admit to enjoying a sense of earning God’s approval through their efforts.”

The problem, however, is that the philanthropists risk losing sight of the message that should motivate this work. Many philanthropists seem to be doing good works because Jesus did, not because of who Jesus is. Lyons explains: “what’s missing is the compelling narrative of the Gospel from which all their good works emanate.”

So what does the philanthropist offer to our interest in communicating the gospel in the context of the interfaith movement? They’re good people to know, of course, and perhaps their lifestyle of kindness can do something positive in breaking down stereotypes held by those who have had sour experiences with Christians. What I have realized through being involved in interfaith work, however, is that doing service is only part of the goal – it is just as necessary to be able to tell the story that motivates the service. The inspiring thing to me is that, while many can tell a story of how one example of good deeds motivated another, only a Christian can say that their service is motivated by God becoming man, making the ultimate sacrifice in death and rising from the dead, in part symbolizing the restoration that he offers to all of humankind.

When this message of restoration is communicated from Christian to non-Christian through interfaith cooperation, then we have discovered how to be evangelicals in a religiously diverse world. Should we as Christians lose sight of this good news, then we have lost sight also of the reason why we serve.

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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5 types of Christians: The blenders (part 4 of 6)

A different kind of blender

This article is part 4 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 check back here for part 5 of this series!

So far, I’ve discussed “types” of Christians that Gabe Lyons calls “separatists.” My next two entries, including this one, will address two “types” that Lyons labels as “culturalists.”

The first of those types is the “blenders.” These might be the folks you know as “cultural Christians” or “nominal Christians.” They go to church on Sunday, but the rest of the week faith doesn’t seem to matter – there is little evidence of the characteristics that distinguish a Christ-follower from the rest of culture. Here is what Gabe Lyons has to say in Next Christians:

“This group best reflects the next generation’s values. Their lives mirror much of what everyone else is doing with little delineation between how they behave or what they believe. They are not all that interested in taking public stands for their convictions or faith: they think that’s what the ‘crazy Christians’ (the Separatists) do. Blenders have one concern: being like everyone else. They’ve seen how Christians who wear their faith on their sleeves have been alienated from the ‘in’ crowd. They have no desire to go down that path. As far as they are concerned, serious discussion about religion is a taboo topic – off-limits for casual conversation.”

While I’m not interested in judging the authenticity of a blender’s faith in this space, I would like to discuss the ramifications of the blender approach to Christianity as it pertains to the interfaith movement.

It is certainly possible that the blender would take an interest in the interfaith movement, as the prospects of interfaith cooperation as a social norm can be both apparent and compelling with just a superficial introduction (interfaith dialogue can provide a way of talking about faith that mitigates the taboo status that Lyons mentions above). As the blender enters the space of interfaith dialogue, however, the distinguishing qualities on which we rely to communicate the gospel may not be present.

What characterizes blenders is that faith doesn’t inform or transform the majority of what they do. If it did, their actions and aspirations would contrast with the rest of the world in some notable way – thus they would no longer be blenders. When these folks enter into interfaith dialogue, however, they still introduce themselves as Christians all the same.

Now, some have expressed concern over this scenario – especially various separatist type Christians – and some have even cited this as a barrier to their participation in interfaith cooperation. It is important to realize, however, that this has not been a concern in my experience with interfaith dialogue. I have found it frequently stressed that assumptions should never be made about one person representing a specific faith tradition in its entirety and that one person’s faith experience is necessarily the same as that of another person from the same tradition. Although impressions may be formed, they can be re-shaped by encounters with individuals who live out their faith more genuinely.

But the point that I’d like to stress about blender Christians in interfaith dialogue is that they lack the qualities which enable other Christians to communicate the gospel in such a unique way. Here on Faith Line Protestants, we often highlight the opportunity that interfaith dialogue provides to communicate our faith through relationships. While this often starts in interfaith dialogue, it continues in the relationships that interfaith dialogue can initiate, enable, and accelerate. But if blending into society is a higher priority than living under the influence of the radical example of Christ, what will be communicated in that relationship?

This is where the blender misses the opportunities that compel evangelicals toward interfaith work. The fascinating truth, however, is that interfaith dialogue can also be an opportunity for Jesus followers living with a profound understanding of God’s desire for restoration to communicate to other Christians – such as the blender – what is being missed.

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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The evangelical tension and Scot McKnight on the gospel

The purpose of Faith Line Protestants is to talk about evangelicals and the interfaith movement. But that has led me to talking a lot about the gospel. Why? Because the tension between Christians and people of other religious and non-religious traditions almost always lies in (a) the message that is being communicated and (b) how that message is being communicated.

This observation has led me to ask the questions (several times, in fact): (a) what is the message that evangelicals are communicating? and (b) what’s the best way to communicate that message?

I become concerned when negative  interfaith tension comes from the evangelical’s emphasis on personal salvation (i.e. the “heaven or hell?” focus) and fails to tell the whole story of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. When this is the case, the problem lies in both the (truncated) message and the method of communication.

Scot McKnight was recently interviewed on the Covenant Church website about his latest book The King Jesus Gospel and touches directly on some of the issues related to my thoughts above. Enjoy:

http://www.covchurch.org/news/2011/11/08/expanding-the-gospel-beyond-who%E2%80%99s-in-and-who%E2%80%99s-out/

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5 types of Christians: The evangelizers (part 3 of 6)

This article is part 3 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 check back here for part 4 of this series!

Please read my short narrative “The Good Test” before reading this post, where I describe my encounter with a man on the University of Illinois campus (“Kevin”) who was proselytizing on our main quad. Talking to Kevin was revealing of the barriers that not only kept him from being interested in interfaith work, but that made him opposed to it. I’d like to share my own perspective on Kevin’s approach to evangelism.

I believe that Kevin had the greatest of intentions to share the good news of the Christian faith. But something about Kevin’s approach shuts the door nearly as quickly as it is opened. And I hope that my conversation with Kevin has shed light on the reason for that. I also believe that Kevin is what Gabe Lyons calls an evangelizer (the third type of Christian we’ve discussed so far in this Next Christians-inspired series).

In Next Christians, Gabe Lyons describes Bill, a man who evangelizes to his neighbors by handing out Gospel tracts to trick-or-treating children on Halloween, which upsets their parents. Lyons explains:

“Bill is an evangelizer, and to be fair, he thought he was doing what was best. Driven by a desire to spread the ‘good news,’ he felt compelled to use any method possible. Thinking he was building bridges, he had actually accomplished the opposite. His plan to show love to his neighbors had backfired.”

I think that Kevin’s approach backfires too, although perhaps in a different way. His failure to make meaningful, genuine connections with other people denies him the opportunity to communicate the big picture of the faith – an it turns off many with whom he does have the chance to talk.

He was also caught up in the perception others held of him, seemingly to overlooking that fact that Jesus ate with tax collectors (Mark 2:13-17) while the religious leaders (Pharisees) whispered about him in the background. Kevin may have forgotten also how Jesus healed on the Sabbath without concern for the Pharisees’ judgment  (Matthew 12:1-14).

Where some might have stopped for fear of being perceived incorrectly, Jesus proceeded brilliantly, always communicating the Gospel of the Kingdom of God: that Jesus offers restoration, and that his followers are called to restore and be restored.

This is what the evangelizer is missing. His or her message is only about hell and the decision that can save you from it. But the gospel is about the restoration of the individual (yes, from sin and the punishment of hell to life to the full) as well as the restoration of the whole world. This is what Jesus demonstrated in his healing and relationships. This is what the Pharisees never understood. But this is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

The evangelizers that Lyons describes don’t fit into the interfaith movement because the movement doesn’t mesh with the techniques people like Kevin employ to communicate the gospel. But the gospel message will be told when we as Christians take our place in the Kingdom of God narrative: a narrative of restoration – the child suffering from malnutrition, the community destroyed by an earthquake, the sinner in need of forgiveness.

Remember how Jesus communicated the message? Service, storytelling, and relationships.

And if you ask my friend Adam (mentioned in my last post), I bet he’d tell you which approach is more effective at communicating the message. If I’m wrong, I guess I better get my business card updated…

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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The consequences of youth ministry

Skye Jethani commented recently on an idea put forth by Tony Jones, suggesting that relational youth ministry is responsible for the emerging church movement (read Tony’s blog here).

Jethani suggests some of the unintended consequences that may have come from the model of youth ministry that has been practiced for the past several decades:

…I’m concerned that youth ministry is forming the values of isolation and activism into Millennials. They’re relationally isolated from other generations in the church, and their faith is isolated from any sense of calling or vocation. At the same time they are linking faith to social action toward the poor and marginalized, but this is often emotionally driven without a theological rootedness that can fuel engagement when emotion runs dry. Without a robust theology of justice, in time compassion fatigue may set in and activism slip into apathy.”

And it got me to thinking. What does this mean about the way the next generation of Christians relates to a religiously-diverse world? Social action that is not rooted in theology is a concern – especially when social action is the way one relates to people of other faith traditions. What do you think?

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The Good Test

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.

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Taking the discussion up a notch

We’re going to give something new a try on Faith Line Protestants starting today, and if you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about. We’re calling it “Thoughts and Links.”

Cameron and I realized that there is an incredible number of things we encounter on a day-to-day basis that we’d like to share with our readers – but we simply don’t have the time to always write a full-fledged blog entry to tell you about them. Hence our new addition to FLP. We hope to share quick stories, thoughts, photos, links, etc. much more regularly with our readers through this new platform.

But don’t worry! Our featured posts (complete with corny stock photography) that you’ve come to know and love will still keep showing up, but we’ll keep things a little more frequent with “Thoughts and Links. ”

To get things started, I’ll try to dig up some of that stuff that has been distracting me from studying for exams for the past few weeks to share with you all…

Best,

Greg

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5 types of Christians: The culture warriors (part 2 of 6)

This article is part 2 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 check back here for part 3 of this series!

The Culture Warriors

Do you remember what Nicholas Kristof had to say about evangelicals in the wake of Rev. John Stott’s death? Kristof demonstrated an incredible sense of insight as he compared and contrasted the compassionate, gentle work of Stott’s ministry with the blowhards of the Christian Right like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

To me, Falwell and Robertson epitomize the culture warriors.

Gabe Lyons gives another example – the protestors who fought to retain “Roy’s Rock,” a monument of the Ten Commandments that met controversy outside of an Alabama courthouse several years ago. He explains in Next Christians:

“Culture warriors, many of whom are sincere and well-intentioned, simply don’t know how else to promote the ideals of their faith in the public square. Yet they are often unaware of how their tactics are perceived by others. This view motivates many of them—like the Roy’s Rock angry supporters—to ensure that societal values and cultural artifacts reflect Christian beliefs. Even when society no longer behaves, thinks, or seeks the Christian God.”

As I am reminded of the rhetoric of such an approach to “living Christian in a religiously diverse world” (as our tagline reads), and am often concerned by what I hear (remember the Falwell-Robertson explanation for 9/11)?” I pray that the next generation of conservative leaders can find another way, as Gabe Lyons’ puts it, “to promote the ideals of their faith in the public square” (although we’ve had a few scares).

Not surprisingly, when it comes to the interfaith movement, the culture warriors seem more interested in debate than dialogue. But when you consider the goals of evangelicals — to communicate the message of the Christian faith — does it communicate the message of the Kingdom of God to blame the suffering for their pain or to refuse to acknowledge other traditions and worldviews in the public square?

A good example of where this attitude hits home can be found in the various mosque controversies that have sprung up around the country over the past year. When it comes to the way that the Christian community behaves toward communities of other faiths, is it more loving to vehemently oppose our neighbors, or to welcome them? It seems that the culture warrior mentality says making a welcoming gesture is not the Christian thing to do. But which response better reflects the attitude of Jesus?

As Cameron and I have attempted to describe numerous times on this site, it is possible to show kindness to people of other faiths without compromising one’s own beliefs. To the culture warrior, however, kindness seems out of the question – and that’s why interfaith relationships won’t mesh.

My hope is that the culture warriors aren’t the image by which the general public stereotypes the evangelical Christian tradition. After all, here’s one follower of Jesus who is willing to trade a granite monument for relationships – because relationships are how I get to show others what my faith is really about.

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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