Category Archives: Evangelism

The #1 Tip for Engaging Evangelicals in Interfaith Work is…

As a Christian working at an interfaith organization, I am frequently asked how to engage evangelicals. Here at Faithline Protestants we’ve written a lot about the subject, but there’s one issue that I’ve seen that comes up again and again. If I were to pick one tip for communities interested in engaging evangelicals in interfaith work, if would be this: Define interfaith cooperation.

Here’s why. A few years ago, my IFYC colleagues visited a campus that was interested in how they could build and sustain interfaith initiatives in their community. During that visit, we met with several campus groups, students and staff. A few of our Christian colleagues met with a conservative evangelical group that heard we were coming to campus, and were skeptical about our intentions, so they requested a meeting. After hearing us out, the group said this: “We can’t do interfaith work. But, if you want organize an event, bringing together people of different faiths to do a service project, and afterwards we can talk about how Jesus inspires us to serve, we can definitely do that.” We were thrilled! People of different traditions coming together to serve and talk about their religious or secular values? That’s interfaith work! Our new friends just didn’t want to call it interfaith.

What struck me about that story is that the biggest barrier to getting this particular group on board to do interfaith work was the label “interfaith” – and common misconceptions about the word. Some that I hear most often in my work: “Interfaith is wanting everyone to be one religion” “Interfaith where you have to water down your faith to the least common denominator” “Interfaith work is only for folks on the liberal end of the political spectrum” “Interfaith is people of different traditions worshiping together” – none of these are true based on the way we define interfaith cooperation.

At IFYC, we define interfaith as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. Interfaith cooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; that means that you don’t have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation – whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist, you don’t have to compromise what you believe (or what you don’t believe) to engage in interfaith work. We recognize there are shared values across different traditions, and there are very real differences – while we may not agree who goes to heaven, or even if there is a heaven, but we can agree that homelessness is a problem in our community, and we should do something about it. Our definition of interfaith is founded on a sociological – not theological – principle of pluralism that acknowledges the potential for diverse religious and nonreligious to build positive relationships and social cohesion. That means that when even when folks of different backgrounds disagree, there is still a sense of common ground between them.

Those of us that work in the interfaith field, or regularly engage in interfaith work can forget the importance of defining interfaith cooperation for folks new to this work. So, if you’re hoping to engage evangelical communities – or most other communities, for that matter – in interfaith work, define what interfaith is, and what it isn’t. Emphasize that folks across the theological and philosophical spectrum, whether liberal or conservative, are welcome.

The interfaith table is set, and you are welcome here.

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Involving Evangelicals in the Interfaith Movement

I am an evangelical Christian. If you’re a regular reader here, you already know that.

We can argue about what being an evangelical Christian means, or even if it means anything at all (a professor of religion recently told me that it doesn’t mean anything at all, as you can imagine I really loved that — insert eye roll here). The long and short of it for me is that I want everyone to be in relationship with Jesus, know the love and grace of God, and that I believe when it’s all said and done, some will enter the Kingdom of God, and some will not. It also means I take the scriptures to be the true Word of God (yes Word with a capital “W”) and I also really dig contemporary Christian worship.

It confounds Christians and non-Christians alike why I – an evangelical Christian – would even bother with interfaith cooperation. For those new to the interfaith conversation, one of the guidelines of interfaith events and dialogue is that we will not proselytize. In other words, to be a participant in a formal interfaith project or dialogue there is an agreement that those participating will not try to convert each other. It has to be a space for people to learn, gain insight, and build relationships. If you’re trying to convert someone, you’re usually not trying to hear their story, learn about their worldview and you’re definitely into promoting whatever truth you hold dear.

Proselytism (or to use Christian lingo – evangelism) is important to my spiritual practice. It’s important to a lot of other peoples’ practice as well (those who belong to ISKON, certain Muslim communities, heck – even to some atheists!). The Interfaith Movement is not about watering down identity or praxis. It is into “pluralism”positive engagement between people of different religious and non-religious identities. So difference is key here, and authenticity is important as well. So to agree to this guideline of no proselytism at an interfaith event, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily agreeing to it in every aspect of your life.

I don’t mean to make this sound simple or easy. It is complex and challenging to be a person who understands evangelism to be important and who understands interfaith cooperation and dialogue to be important. But for me, nothing worth doing is easy – I love nuance and mystery and complexity – all of these things are ingredients to a great adventure, and interfaith cooperation and dialogue are nothing short of an adventure.

All of that being said – I think there are some things that the interfaith movement can do to be more open to those of us for whom evangelism (or proselytism) is central to our praxis – (Note: these don’t apply only to Christian evangelicals):

1 – Create a Safe Space: Most interfaith dialogue I have been a part of sets up a “safe space” before engaging in dialogue. I know we do at just about every event we do at the UNF Interfaith Center. As I mentioned before, there is a guideline within the movement that participants will not try to convert others. I think that’s great for these types of events, however when you are explaining this guideline to your group, be sure to use positive language when talking about proselytism. Evangelicals are not ignorant of the negative connotation evangelism has for many people. In order to keep the evangelicals (or other faith groups who might also proselytize) from feeling defensive be sure to affirm evangelism as something that is positive for many people and that you’re not asking them to give up evangelism altogether, but to simply suspend it for your time together.

2 – Make sure everyone in the room knows it’s okay to disagree. Often time outsiders think interfaith cooperation is all about how “we’re all the same.” While I do think talking about our similarities is important, particularly for creating common ground and building relationships, sometimes evangelicals can be made to feel like the “bad guy” because they’re not willing to say “all beliefs are created equal.” For evangelicals (and many other faith identities) it is important for them to feel okay about the fact that they believe Jesus is the one and only savior, and the only way to the Kingdom is through him. If pluralism really is about engaging people of different religious and non-religious identities – it has to be okay for us to disagree. I am not saying you should let people be disrespectful during your dialogue – this is why “I-statements” and other Safe Space Guidelines are important. (You can go here for more information on Safe Space guidelines.

 

3 – Give evangelicals opportunities to talk about their faith. If you haven’t noticed, evangelicals LOVE to talk about their faith and of course, about Jesus. Yes, it is very important for evangelicals to hear about the faith and beliefs of others. Arguably, evangelicals don’t do this enough (does anyone do it enough??). That being said, evangelicals are going to feel a lot better about what your interfaith group is doing if they’re being given equal opportunity to share. It seems like it should go without saying, but it doesn’t. Because evangelicals are viewed to be the “religious majority” in our country, in my experience, it is often the case that evangelicals are expected to take a backseat in interfaith dialogue. The truth is, just like any religious/non-religious identity, there is a lot of misunderstanding about evangelicals – particularly around their views of salvation. Evangelicalism is incredibly diverse, and it is becoming a more and more complicated identity every day. So why not give an evangelical Christian an opportunity to dissect some of those misunderstandings? At the interfaith center where I work we have an event called Coffee and Conversation where we give students, faculty, staff and community members an opportunity to talk about their identity. We set up Safe Space Guidelines, the speaker talks for about 15 minutes, and then we open up for questions for the remainder of the hour. I have found them to be an incredibly meaningful experience for the speakers and a great opportunity for the participants to deconstruct stereotypes and misunderstanding while building relationships with people of different religious and non-religious identities.

As the Interfaith Movement grows it will be increasingly important for us to find new ways to communicate with each other. As the movement becomes more diverse, we’ll also have to find new ways to be as inclusive as possible. If you’re struggling to get evangelicals involved in your interfaith programming – feel free to peruse our blog or contact us!

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6 Chaplains Walk Into a Hospital…

What do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks?

I haven’t been able to come up with a punchy one-line answer yet—but let me know if you can think of any.  This has been my summer so far. In early June, six of us from Jewish and Christian seminaries around New York City embarked on our first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)—a requirement for most clergy-in-training that involves offering pastoral care to people in need, in a clinical setting. Our hospital ID badges say “Chaplain Intern,” but what it means to be a chaplain—as I have learned over and over again—is ambiguous, and often has more to do with what the person we happen to be serving wants (or needs) us to be, than what we believe we are.

When someone asks us about our faith traditions—even though we are all deeply connected to specific traditions—we are instructed to say something along these lines: I am an interfaith chaplain and I’m here to serve the spiritual and emotional needs of patients in the hospital, no matter what their faith or philosophical tradition may be. Still,patients often project their own faiths onto us—there was the Episcopalian chaplain who has been repeatedly called Rabbi, the Jewish chaplain who was thanked for her work and her inspiring faith in Jesus; I have had multiple patients assume I am Catholic. For the most part, we don’t correct these assumptions, not because we don’t care, but because our job in the hospital is not to share our identities with others, but to listen, to pray, and to walk with those who are suffering. Why should a patient who is just coming out of a four-week coma after a stroke care if I’m an Episcopalian, or even a Christian for that matter? Much more important is that the patient can express her feelings and know that God is with her and is listening to her prayers.

That’s not to say that it has been easy to “set aside” our faith traditions. There are times that I have wanted to talk about Jesus or quote New Testament scripture and have had to hold back. But being able to talk about Jesus isn’t what makes me a Christian. I am a Christian because my beliefs and my relationship to Jesus inform the way I live my life and interact with others. Even if I don’t tell a patient that I am Christian, my Christian beliefs are what “get me in the door,” so to speak. My personal faith is the ground I stand on when I meet with patients. It is what helps me to understand the suffering I witness; it is what allows me to love each patient I encounter, regardless of our differences; it is what challenges me to keep coming back. In that way, I haven’t had to set aside my faith at all.

Throughout our first four weeks, each of us has been challenged to define our own theologies of pastoral care, of suffering, and of grief. Many of us have been with family members at the time of a loved one’s death; we have listened to patients who are experiencing excruciating pain, who have been diagnosed with incurable diseases, who feel hopeless about the possibility of healing—and we have to figure out how we can find the tools within our personal faith traditions to be a presence of God’s love to those we encounter. So, what do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks? You probably have to be there for yourself to know for sure—and even then, it’s hard to articulate. But I can say that, in my own experience, not being able to talk directly about my faith has forced me to figure out how to live my faith in a way that speaks louder than words. I can’t say that I always do it well, but I am committed to trying as hard as I can. Perhaps what you get is a group of people who can’t hide behind their intellects and religious platitudes—perhaps you get raw, real religion.

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A Common Table?

One of my best friends from high school is Jewish. He’s not very religious at all, but being Jewish is an important part of his identity. As we’ve gotten older, our lives have taken us in different directions, but we’ve stayed close, in part (I think) because we share our traditions with one another—he celebrates Christmas with my family and I have celebrated Passover and Hanukkah with his. A few weeks ago, I invited Peter to come to a church service at which I would be preaching. I invited him as a friend—not as part of a missionary enterprise—and I was very touched when he agreed to come.

I meant to warn Peter before the service that there would be Communion. I wanted to tell him that Communion is for Christians who feel prepared in their hearts to receive the body and blood of Christ as holy sacrament. “No pressure,” I wanted to tell him—“you are still welcome here, even if you don’t take Communion.” But I was busy preparing for the service and we weren’t able to connect beforehand and so I never got to relay the message.

When it came time to celebrate the Eucharist I looked over at Peter. I had knots in my stomach. I hope he doesn’t feel uncomfortable; I hope he doesn’t feel pressure; I hope he understands what is going on.  As the thoughts ran through my head, I actually considered running over to him; but before I knew it, I saw that he was in line to receive Communion. And a moment later, he had received and returned to his seat.

Afterward, I asked him how it had felt to receive Communion in a Christian church. “I enjoyed it,” he said. “It felt personal.”

“You know you didn’t have to take it, right?”

“Yeah, I know” he said. “But I wanted to.”

At home that night I thought about what it meant that my Jewish friend had taken Eucharist. Was he a Christian now? No—not even close. He remains strongly rooted in his Jewish heritage and tradition. But I felt that this friend—someone who has known me for over 10 years and has seen significant changes take place in my life—knew me in a different way. I felt that even though we would not continue to worship together, we were more deeply connected. Receiving Communion is very important to me as a Christian; it is a major way that I connect with God and strengthen my faith. Being able to share Communion with Peter—even if it didn’t have any spiritual significance for him—allowed me to convey this very important part of my faith in a way that was deeper than words. I felt honored to have been able to invite Peter into a Christian worship service that welcomed him and included him, despite his differences from other congregants.

Still, I wondered: Was it okay that he received? What if the celebrant had known that he wasn’t Christian—would he have been refused? I know that some churches have very strict rules about who can and cannot receive Communion—these are serious and contentious issues. In fact, disagreements about the Eucharist have led to major disputes and splits throughout Christian history. I myself have been kept from Communion in certain worship settings and I know others who have had to look on because they didn’t fit fellow Christians’ criteria. I don’t hope to build a compelling theological argument for the necessity of inclusive Eucharist in this blog post, but I do want to say that there is something very powerful about extending our tables, even to those who are not prepared to receive Christ into their hearts. After all, the gifts themselves have the power to transform each of us. What would happen if we didn’t require each person to be our ideal of a Christian before sharing in the bread and cup? If we didn’t hold onto these gifts so tightly, would we find both ourselves and others transformed?

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Tony Campolo on Colbert: What Does it Mean to be an Evangelical?

Last week, Greg Damhorst asked us: What is an evangelical?  Check out this Colbert interview with Tony Campolo for one pastor’s answer…and a good laugh.

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Advent, Apocalypse, and Interfaith Cooperation?

As a seminary student, I have spent a lot of time in the classroom learning about the Bible. But this past Sunday I just preached for the first time at the main service of my Episcopal church in New York City, standing on a high-rise lectern in front of 150+ churchgoers. It didn’t make it any easier that this week was a pretty important one in the liturgical calendar—Sunday was the first day of the entire church year, and the first Sunday of Advent (the season that leads up to Christmas). The fascinating thing about the lectionary texts that kick off the New Year is that they are apocalyptic—they’re not about fresh starts or new beginnings; instead, they warn believers to prepare for judgment at the end of the world.

As I worked on my sermon, it struck me that the Second Coming of Christ is probably not a topic of many interfaith discussions. But why isn’t it? I started to realize that Christian anticipation of the Second Coming actually has a lot to do with building a future of interfaith cooperation.

The Second (or final) Coming is the idea that Jesus will return to earth at some unknown time to the finish the work he began over 2,000 years ago. While most mainline Christian denominations agree that Jesus will return, the exact nature of that return is heavily debated. Some churches emphasize their belief in the idea of a rapture in which the people of the world will be divided. These traditions hold that there will be war, fire, and severe suffering until Jesus arrives to establish the Kingdom of God with those who have remained faithful.

Other Christians envision a broken world that is miraculously revived through the return of Jesus, who is able to establish his Kingdom of love, peace, and justice for all people on earth.

In both cases, and in all the many beliefs not cited here, Christians are asked to bear witness to the possibility that the end of world, as we know it, is drawing near. This means that Christians are called to live in a way that continuously prepares for the return of Jesus. We have to ask ourselves, to what world do we want Jesus to return? What do we want the world to be like when our Savior arrives?

If you are part of a Christian tradition that observes the liturgical calendar, then you know that Advent is our main season for preparation—but Christians are called to prepare for the Coming of the Lord at all times, not just at appointed seasons. I want to prepare a world for Jesus in which Christians are kind neighbors to those of other religious traditions. I want to prepare a world in which there is an end to poverty, an end to bullying, and an end to greed. I want to prepare my own heart for Jesus by striving to spend more time in prayer than I do on social media, more time building community than I do complaining about how my communities aren’t strong enough.

How will you prepare for the Coming of Christ? In what kind of world do you want to meet Jesus?

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What is an evangelical?

I usually sit down to write for this blog with a specific message to communicate, but today I have a few questions.

In a recent meeting with other interfaith organizers on campus, a progressive Christian minister – for whom I have great respect – questioned whether inviting an evangelical Christian speaker would be appropriate for our annual interfaith conference. “After all,” he pointed out, “when I think of evangelicals…”

You can probably complete the sentence.

My first thought was to defend the individual we had been discussing, an evangelical who has had a significant impact on me as an interfaith organizer. Without realizing it, I tried to explain that this particular individual was an exception: cooperative, respectful…

But as I’ve thought more about this encounter, some further questions have resurfaced regarding the way the world perceives evangelicals. Is a respectful evangelical really a misnomer? Or is it just blowhard public figures who have perpetuated this idea that evangelicals aren’t interested in being your friend (unless if you convert)? Running parallel with this same train of thought is a question of my own identity: do I want to identify as an evangelical?

It will always be true that I grew up an evangelical – albeit my church community could hardly be characterized as aggressive or charismatic. And I’ve continued to call myself an evangelical despite – like many in my generation – growing disenchanted with many habits of the evangelical church. I’ve also learned (largely thanks to Facebook) that the members of my childhood congregation represented the full spectrum of political and social opinions, though rarely did controversial topics come up in church activities. On the other hand, I’ve been through evangelism trainings, been told to keep a list of friends I want to convert, and been challenged to do cold-turkey evangelism.

So my experience with what it means to be an evangelical has included a broad range of people with varying political views, spiritual practices, and methods for communicating the gospel. And I continue to call myself an evangelical because of the way I view my faith, and because of how I interpret the gospel regarding the way I should live my life: that there is good news to be shared. This is a theme that has been at the core of many of the things I’ve written on this site and will continue to be so. Furthermore, I’ve been interested in involving other evangelicals in these dialogues with people from other religious and non-religious traditions because, among several reasons, I believe the idea that is at the core of evangelicalism – communicating the gospel – is best accomplished in these settings.

So when I find myself in a conversation where one’s compatibility with interfaith cooperation is questioned because they are an evangelical, how should I react? Should the image of evangelical Christians be defended by pointing out that there are – and presumably always have been – “nice” evangelicals? Or should we abandon the label altogether? Does the name “evangelical Christian” require some sort of makeover, how can that be accomplished, and who will lead it?

I’m not a sociologist or a theologian, and I can’t cite to you the way either scholar would define an evangelical Christian. But how many of the ¼ of Americans who call themselves evangelicals could?

This is something I hope to learn from my fellow contributors and readers of this blog: what do you consider to define an evangelical?

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Born Again Christian + Interfaith Activist = Not Mutually Exclusive

This blog originally appeared on Talking Taboo, a forum for Christian women to explore the unspeakable experiences of their faith.

There’s a moment when I meet someone new and I’m asked what I do for a living where I look down at my watch and calculate whether or not I have enough time to explain that I work for an interfaith organization – and what that means for me as a born again Christian.

I’m a medium sized town Baptist girl from North Carolina. I made my profession of faith when I was nine years old by asking Jesus to come into my heart and hopping into our church’s beloved “dunking booth” to be baptized. I’m a born again Christian who does interfaith work for a living at an organization in Chicago called Interfaith Youth Core, which seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, and I’ve been at it now for almost seven years. When I tell some of my Christian brothers and sisters what I do for a living, I get a range of reactions: furrowed brows, polite head nods, enthusiastic reactions, and challenging, critical statements about my chosen career path. Here are some of most common examples of push back I get within my own community and how I respond:

 “You aren’t a real Christian if you do interfaith work.” There are common misconceptions about interfaith work – that it means everyone should all be a part of one big religion or it implies that everyone essentially believes the same thing we’re just taking different paths. Neither of these definitions describes the interfaith movement I belong to.  At IFYC, we define interfaith as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between folks of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. That means that you don’t have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation – whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist – and you don’t have to compromise what you believe (or what you don’t believe). We may not agree about who gets into heaven, or if heaven exists at all. We may be divided across political lines. But we can all agree that hunger is a problem in our community and we should tackle it together because when we start from a place of shared values and combine our social capital, we are better together.

“Interfaith work isn’t biblical.” There are many biblical arguments for interfaith work. My friend and IFYC alum Nick Price, former InterVarsity staffer and pastor in training, wrote a three part blog series on sharing his theological framework for interfaith cooperation. My theology of interfaith cooperation starts at the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable in response to an expert in the law who wants to know how Jesus defines the “neighbor” that you are called to love as you love yourself. There are four Greek words for love in the Bible – the specific word for love used here is “agape” which means a full and complete love. And who is our neighbor? In the story, the Samaritan, who was someone from the oppressed group in that time, showed compassion and mercy to the Jewish man who was robbed and left for dead. Jesus is emphasizing the importance of caring for your neighbor especially when that person is from a different background and tradition from your own. Engaging in interfaith work gives me that opportunity to love and serve alongside those that are my neighbors, as well as to talk about Jesus as the inspiration for my life.

 “You’ll get converted if you do interfaith work.” Engaging in interfaith work has only strengthened my identity as a Christian. Many non-Christians have asked me questions about my faith story and different tenants in my tradition that have challenged me to go back to my Christian community to get answers. My favorite question was from a young Muslim girl who wanted me to explain the relationship between Jesus and Santa Claus. Learning about other traditions hasn’t made me want to convert or let go of my faith, in fact, quite the opposite. For example, when I learned that many of my Muslim friends pray five times a day and I juxtaposed that against my paltry two prayers a day, that inspired me to take a hard look at my own prayer life and consider how often I’m spending time with my Lord and Savior. Another example was when I first started at IFYC and encountered a Catholic mother who was reticent to send her son to our programs. He was barely interested in church as it was, she explained, and she didn’t want him coming away from the faith. After spending time with folks from other traditions and talking about his faith in a new way, this sixteen year old kid came home and expressed an interest in going to seminary. She promptly called our office and asked if we could get her other son immediately involved in our programs.

I believe the Christian community has a biblical calling to interfaith work. I also believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light. I don’t have to compromise my deeply held beliefs to engage in interfaith work. I am a born again Christian. I am an interfaith leader.  I do interfaith work not despite the fact that I’m a Christian, but I do it because I am a Christian. Many other folks in the Christian community are starting to recognize the importance of engaging in interfaith work. I invite you to join us.

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