Author Archives: Greg Damhorst

5 types of Christians: The insiders (part 1 of 6)

This article is part 1 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 2 of this series!

Click on photo for credits

 

I’ve never found it sufficient to simply state that I’m a Christian when meeting someone new. Inevitably, saying so always leads to a question of brand or persuasion that, more often than not, seems to be accompanied with an assessment by my new acquaintance. People draw many conclusions from one’s denominational affiliation, and in the case of meeting other Christians, they want to know whether you are “one of theirs” or not. After all, we’ve all met that Christian who we just can’t quite stand to be around, right?

The sociology of Christianity fascinates me, and the only thing preventing me from writing a doctoral thesis on the subject is a lack of calling (and the fact that I’m currently training as an engineer and a physician, so don’t get your hopes up). The way that Christian doctrine has manifested itself in Christian living varies so greatly from person-to-person that it’s mind-blowing – something Gabe Lyons recognizes during a consulting gig with a film producer described in his book, Next Christians.

Despite the complexity of it all, Lyons provides a brilliant assessment of Christians in America that will enlighten our discussion on evangelicalism and the interfaith movement, and I’d like to jump right in.

Lyons describes two major types of American Christian, each followed by more specific sub-types: “separatist” (including “insiders,” “culture warriors” and “evangelizers”) and “culturalist” (including “blenders” and “philanthropists”). I’ll unpack each of these as we discuss this analysis in light of the interfaith movement. I’ll begin with the label that best describes my childhood: the insiders.

The Insiders

In general, I grew up an insider. My favorite time of the week was Sunday night youth group, with Wednesday night dinners at church coming in a close second. My friends were almost entirely from the church crowd – and in a small congregation like ours, that meant I hung out with the kids from the five or six families I saw every Sunday morning.

My first CD purchase was a Jars of Clay album, and for a while I owned nearly all of the Steven Curtis Chapman albums (or at least the ones that had been released since I was born…). I had the WWJD? wristband, the cheesy Christian slogan t-shirt, and a set of home-made Bible verse magnets I had created on the computer. Sounding familiar to anyone?

As an insider, I lacked a sense of the religious diversity around me. When I thought of the brown-skinned guy in my reading class, I thought that being Arab and Muslim were the same thing. When the Thai girl in my homeroom was teased for being Buddhist, I didn’t even think of speaking up.

As an insider, I didn’t care about my classmate’s beliefs and traditions. To me, the only real world was the world of the church. I still can’t remember how I conceptualized a lifestyle centered on a different god, or, for that matter, the absence of one. It didn’t matter to me, almost as if those people didn’t have any real depth – as if they lacked real values. And although I was involved in community service throughout high school, the “why?” discussion about the motivation behind the action didn’t matter to me. I didn’t realize that others might cite reasons to serve that were different from my own.

It is incredible to see how my lifestyle – and my faith – has changed from being an insider. From eagerly awaiting each day spent at church (Wednesdays and Sundays) as an elementary school kid to finding excuses to skip campus fellowship meetings in college because I was increasingly irritated with the lack of interest in what was happening outside of our doors – people in need of restoration, relationships we were called – as Christians, as “restorers” – to build (a major theme in Next Christians).

It was when I came across interfaith dialogue that I realized there was so much more to people than what I observed from within my cultural “bubble.” It was also when I learned that Jesus called me to sacrificial service that I began to care why others were driven to serve as well.

Yet I still encounter the insiders. And the lack of interest in interfaith cooperation is all too familiar. It makes me wonder if the bubble which makes us comfortable on the inside is also keeping the “outsiders” out.

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

Share Button

Too exclusive to stay: one reason young Christians are leaving the church

The Barna group released an update yesterday with a preview of David Kinnaman’s (co-author of UnChristian with Gabe Lyons) new book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church. The update suggests six major themes, at least one of which is of interest to our discussion on Faith Line Protestants.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%). (http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church).

As America’s religious diversity grows, so does the potential for tension between an exclusive faith tradition and the people of other traditions (including no tradition at all). Contrary to popular belief, the reality of that tension does not seem to come solely from the fact that Christianity identifies Jesus Christ as the only way to God, but from the broader Christian community’s failure to see how these truth claims – and the call to share those claims with others – will play out in relationships with others.

Click on photo for credits

For example, my evangelical upbringing rarely emphasized the importance of caring for any aspect of my atheist friends’ lives other than their salvation. Nor did I receive any guidance on how to build friendships with Muslims in a way that opened doors instead of closing them. What this does – whether intentionally or not – is it creates a mentality of “us versus them”: Christians are worthy of our fellowship, and the only concern I should have with the others is in converting them.

This may be what gives rise to the opinions that Barna has uncovered in their latest project.

So how do we change this? If young Christians are so unprepared to handle their faith in a diverse world that they must choose between making friends with non-Christians or staying committed to their faith, then something is wrong. There is a failure to look at the life of Jesus while asking: how would Jesus engage a religiously diverse world?

What the church needs in this arena is to start a conversation within its own congregations to ponder this question. We need to explore the possibility of maintaining exclusive truth claims while building positive relationships with our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and non-religious neighbors. We need to teach young people to have a conversation about faith that doesn’t infallibly induce an awkward discomfort in one or both of the parties involved, yet doesn’t gloss over differences to create a watered-down dialogue, either. We need to start thinking about how interfaith cooperation might actually enhance our ability to communicate the message of our faith instead of hinder it.

If we look at the life of Christ and we ask about how Christians should respond in the wake of religious bigotry, in the presence of human need, or in the tenderness of a relationship, we will find that “love your neighbor” has even more to teach us. Then our young people will discover as well that friendship is something that takes place because of Jesus, not in spite of Him.

Share Button

Reflecting on September 11

I remember the day when, shortly after September 11, 2001,  my mom asked me if anyone bullied the Muslim kid at school.

“No,” I said, “not that I’ve noticed.”

And I hadn’t noticed anything. But as we all know, not all American Muslims fared so well, and even if those I knew weren’t being bullied, there is no telling what sort of distress they felt inside that I couldn’t see.

So today, as I struggled to think about how to pose my reflections on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, one thing comes to mind: love.

And it is only proper that love should be the prevailing message, because the things which we remember are the ramifications of an ideology of hate, the destruction accomplished by terror. I believe that the objective of extremism is not solely the destruction of life, but the induction of hatred in others. So we see that from hatred, hate also rises.

That hate is manifested in many forms, from the violence that fuels war across the world to the doctrine that continues to raise terrorists around the world to the bigotry and intolerance of Islamaphobia here at home. So our reflections on 9/11 must not be only about the twin towers, flight 93, the pentagon, and those who died, but also a somber recognition that our struggle should not be a fight against other human beings, but against hate.

It is a fight that can only be won with love. I am reminded, then, of Jesus’ simple, yet profound words.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 4:43).

“‘Love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hand on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

However you define neighbor and enemy, these words are clear: we are called to love. This must be our response, particularly on the day where we remember those who have lost their lives to hate.

I leave you with a verse on which I’ve been reflecting, as a final thought today:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brotheror sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their borther and sister whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

1 John 4:18-21

Share Button

On the Air: An interview on Keepin’ the Faith

A few weeks ago I was privileged to interview as a guest on the WILL AM 580 (local public radio) show Keepin’ the Faith about interfaith work on the University of Illinois campus with my friend Ish Umer. Don Nolen, who guest-hosted that evening, led us into a discussion of evangelicals and interfaith work that I thought you might enjoy. You can download the podcast from will.illinois.edu at the following link: http://will.illinois.edu/keepinthefaith/show/ktf110807/

I’ve listed a few landmarks so you don’t have to listen to the whole program if your schedule doesn’t allow the time:

0:00 – About the Illinois Interfaith Service Challenge

20:18 – Ish’s description of his religious background and his experience around 9/11

25:48 – Greg’s description of his religious background

29:10 – Addressing sensitive issues in interfaith dialogue

36:50 – Evangelism and interfaith dialogue

47:36 – Guest caller with question for Ish

50:00 – Interfaith work on campus: One Million Meals for Haiti, and continued discussion of the Interfaith Service Challenge.

Share Button

The end of Christian America?

Something is being whispered about in daring conversations around the country. You may have heard it mentioned in editorials, on the covers of magazines, and in blogs. It seems that the evidence is there, although it hasn’t necessarily been aggregated and analyzed. If it wasn’t for my own personal experiences, I might have tried to deny it too, but there’s something about it that resonates strangely, like a poorly-articulated pop song to which you finally were able to decipher all the words.

The church is losing its influence in society.

But is it really a bad thing? Gabe Lyons, founder of Q Ideas and co-author of the bestselling UnChristian, speaks explicitly to this reality in his new book Next Christians. I’m going to use this text, as I have with other books in the past, to guide a discussion over the next several weeks.

Lyons paints a symbolically rich picture in his opening chapter of a visit he paid to the legendary evangelist Billy Graham at Graham’s home in the winding roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the two chatted while reclining in rocking chairs on the back porch and enjoyed warm cookies from the oven, Lyons finds Graham in a place of rest, comfort, and solitude – Graham’s work, though both tremendous and inspiring, is over.

A fitting scene to set the stage for a book subtitled: The Good News about the End of Christian America.

Lyons is on to something. If you read back through our archive of posts on Faith Line Protestants, you’ll be able to infer that Cameron and I sense that the “Billy Graham” method of evangelism is becoming, to some extent, culturally obsolete.

Let me clarify: I affirm the ministry of Billy Graham. I believe that Reverend Graham, like few people in his generation, responded wholly and obediently to the mission to which God had called him, and did so with tremendous success. But Billy Graham witnessed to a generation of Americans in stark contrast to the present generation.

In general, it seems that Graham spoke to a nominally-churched generation. These were people who may or may not have called themselves Christians, but perhaps recognized the Church as an authority and the Bible as a source of insight, giving traction to Graham’s stadium-revival and radio-show approach to communicating the gospel. The truth about my generation, however,  is that most are disenchanted with the Christian Church– a fact possibly most apparent on college campuses and in metropolitan areas.

Some may blame secularism, but it’s also largely because of pluralism. America is becoming increasingly diverse. Among my closest peers at the University of Illinois, the majority have been raised either in another faith tradition or in a non-religious household. The Church and its scriptures carry little or no influence, simply because of their upbringing.

So if we are called as Christians to communicate the message of the gospel, and we desire to be heard by the current generation of young adults (and perhaps their parents, but certainly their children), it will not suffice simply to hold stadium revivals, deliver inspiring sermons on the radio, and stage teary-eyed altar-calls.

To communicate the gospel, we have to live the gospel.

I’ll leave you with the words of Billy Graham as quoted by Gabe Lyons in Next Christians:

“Back when we did these big crusades in football stadiums and arenas, the Holy Spirit was really moving—and people were coming to Christ as we preached the Word of God.  But today, I sense something different is happening. I see evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in a new way.  He’s moving through people where they work and through one-on-one relationships to accomplish great things.  They are demonstrating God’s love to those around them, not just with words, but in deed.”

I have found that the interfaith movement cultivates these relationships. Don’t let the end of Christian America get you down; there are exciting times ahead.

During my next several entries, I’ll discuss Gabe Lyons’ analysis of Christian interaction with current culture, which provides insight on living Christian in a religiously diverse world and sets the stage for an understanding of what it means to live life seeking restoration through engaging those around us.

Share Button

John Stott and the Pharisees

John Stott was an evangelical leader, and one who bore the name well. His passing last week has spurred a number of blogs and articles reflecting on his work as a minister. Among these is an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof which I felt important to share with the FLP community.

Kristoff highlights the “distaste” often inspired by the title evangelical Christian, pointing to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as examples of the self-righteousness that has soured the evangelical name. On the other hand, Kristoff identifies Rev. Stott as gentle and intellectual, an evangelical who coupled his preaching of the gospel with compassionate acts and concern for the suffering. Furthermore, Kristoff recognizes this quality in “some of the bravest people you meet” at the “front lines” of major humanitarian efforts.

It seems what Kristoff is observing is an age-old pattern.

When Jesus walked the earth, as described in the New Testament (specifically the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), a similar polarity could be observed in the religious culture. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law practiced self-righteous piety; Jesus practiced love.

Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic, the Pharisees called it blasphemy. Jesus healed a shriveled hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees plotted to kill him. Jesus built relationships with “tax collectors and sinners,” the Pharisees questioned his actions.

The Pharisees fasted to demonstrate their piety, but never seemed to understand compassion. Caught up in their own self-righteousness, they were repeatedly looking to accuse Jesus and his followers of wrongdoing. Jesus even warned his followers of their teaching. But the difficulty of Phariseeism is that it was a subtle danger – they had become so obsessed with the religious Law that they missed identifying the one to whom the Law pointed.

Is this what Kristoff is observing in today’s society? It sounds familiar: the compassionate and the self-righteous. Jesus and the Pharisees. The Stotts and the Falwells?

Every time I encounter an evangelical who is compelled to “preach the message” through criticism, especially when that criticism elevates that “evangelical” in self-righteousness, I think back to the life of Christ: service, storytelling, and relationships. When Jesus used strong words – when Jesus was critical – it wasn’t to condemn the broken for their immorality. It was to confront the Pharisees about their self-righteousness (Matthew 3:7, Matthew 23:27).

This is important to our discussion at Faith Line Protestants. Phariseeism isn’t compatible with the interfaith movement. What is compatible is service through compassion, humility and relationships.

Jesus didn’t come to say that the 9/11 attacks were punishment for American’s immorality or that AIDS is God’s judgment on promiscuity. He came to grant forgiveness to the immoral, offer completeness to the promiscuous, and to provide freedom from sin. After all, it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.

Share Button

A practical guide for engaging evangelicals in interfaith work

In conversations at the Interfaith Youth Core’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington D.C. this week I encountered several interfaith leaders – both college students and staff – who struggle with engaging the evangelical communities on their campus.  I hope this will serve as a practical guide for interfaith leaders in similar situations.

I frequently encounter students, staff, and faculty involved in interfaith work who struggle to involve evangelical students in the interfaith movement. While there’s no hard and fast answer, here is a practical guide from an evangelical about evangelicals, hoping to bolster evangelical participation in the interfaith movement.

1. Set up a safe space

First, communicate the concept of interfaith cooperation. Diana Eck’s definition is particularly helpful here:

  • Respect for religious identity
  • Mutually inspiring relationships
  • Common action for the common good

The two major barriers to interfaith involvement for evangelicals are (1) a fear that it promotes theological pluralism or universalism and (2) the disinterest that results from a perceived lack of opportunities to convert others. Clear communication of the definition of interfaith cooperation will mitigate the former and inform the latter. Evangelicalism must be respected for the interfaith movement to be patent — even if it means tolerating some degree of proselytization. Proselytization, however, can only be tolerated in the interfaith movement if it respects the religious identity of those who are proselytized, thus requiring that the evangelical make a careful examination of their technique.

Proselytization that occurs in the setting of an interfaith dialogue is another conversation, and must be handled on a case-by-case basis.

2. Emphasize the invitation

When I think about the ministry of Christ, I recognize three prominent themes: storytelling (including parables and sermons), relationships (including those with ‘sinners’ and societal outcasts), and service. Similarly, the tenants of the interfaith movement are: storytelling, relationships, and service.

To me, an invitation to interfaith cooperation is an invitation to emulate Christ (which naturally appeals to my evangelical worldview). You might not be in a position to convince evangelicals on your campus of this idea, but you can make an invitation that will appeal to anyone with evangelical convictions. The interfaith movement is an invitation to talk about Christ (including the concept of salvation) and to demonstrate the compassion with which Christ engaged the world.

It’s also an opportunity to learn more about other religious and non-religious traditions, which even the most aggressive evangelicals should see as an opportunity to equip themselves with knowledge relevant to a mission to communicate the gospel to people of other faiths.

3. Let other evangelicals help

The Christian gospel can be communicated in the interfaith movement. A discussion of sin and salvation is probable. An invitation to explore the idea of a personal relationship with God is possible – but there is a learned approach through the interfaith experience and an argument about the limitations of evangelical strategy that often must necessarily take place.

Non-evangelicals cannot easily have that argument with evangelicals, but other evangelicals can. This is the mission of Faith Line Protestants, so you are invited to point to us as a resource in your efforts to engage evangelicals on your campus.

Cameron and I are available for lectures, seminars, and discussions. Feel free to contact us through the contact page on this site — and good luck!

Share Button

When the Interfaith Movement and the Kingdom Intersect

Appearing Monday in the online edition of USA Today was an opinion article titled “Can cause of social justice tame our culture wars?” which carries certain significance in our discussion here at Faith Line Protestants regarding being an evangelical in a religiously diverse world.

The article, which highlights Scott Todd’s “58:” project and mentions Q Ideasa forum for Christian leaders to explore the call to create a better world – and Q founder Gabe Lyons (author of “The Next Christians”) who describes a new generation of Christians who have found the Bible’s call to serve others to hold significant relevance in their lives today.

“These are, after all, the people who accept responsibility to right seemingly every global wrong you can name while restoring the credibility of publicly expressed Christianity in the process. But the workload is exhausting only when they lose connection with their ultimate power source…”

So we’re not talking the Saturday afternoon all-church workday sort of service at which most congregations seem to excel.  We’re talking about defending the oppressed, fighting poverty, and addressing other global problems.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

Isaiah 58:6-7

What’s more –as Lyons says – this is the activation of a network of “restorers who will work with anyone to see goodness go forward in the world and evil pressed back.”  That’s right: anyone.  After all, where is the commandment in our faith to only feed the hungry or defend the helpless if we’re only doing it with other Christians?  It reminds me of the essence of the interfaith movement.

It seems that Lyons has captured the realization that, for practical purposes, we must be willing – even eager – to work with both the nonreligious as well as people of other faith traditions.  Perhaps he has also realized that serving together has even greater potential than just maximizing the impact of our physical work (as we’ve discussed many times here on Faith Line Protestants).

Working together for common goals fosters relationships, promotes conversation, and provides us as evangelicals with the opportunity to communicate the message that Jesus was preaching – the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  If that’s going to tame our culture wars… well, I can live with that.

 

Look for more discussion of Gabe Lyons’ book “Next Christians” here in the coming months and an understanding of how Lyons’ discussion of being Christian in a post-Christian world intersects with our discussion here at FLP.

Share Button