Category Archives: Evangelism

Speak For Yourself

photo by StillSearc (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/StillSearc)

Let’s be honest: Evangelicals get a bad rap. Sometimes rightfully so. One of the truths in life is that sometimes the most divisive voices are the loudest. It seems, these days, this is especially true of Evangelicals.

Here is another truth I’ve learned: the loudest voices aren’t always the truest. Nor are they the most representative.

As an Evangelical, I believe in living my life as a constant witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ (or at least trying to). Jesus tells us that one of the greatest commandments is to love our neighbor as ourselves. What, then, does it mean to love our neighbor?

For me, loving my neighbor means getting to know others for who they are – religious, philosophical, ideological identity and all. So much of who I am is informed by my Christian identity, so I enjoy bringing people to Church and sharing with them my understandings about Christianity and Jesus. People get to understand who I am better by knowing those aspects of me. Surely it’s the same for others and for that reason I enjoy hearing about how one’s understanding of Muhammad, Baha’u’llah, the Bhagavad Gita, Nietzsche, or Huston Smith informs their own self-understanding, way of life, and perception of the world.

One aspect of interfaith cooperation as defined by IFYC is “respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities.” That means whether you’re an Evangelical Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or simply spiritual, you have a place at the table of interfaith cooperation. That place not only empowers you to voice your own identity, but also requires you to respect the identity of others.

In the same way that I hope others will respect my Evangelical Christian identity, I try to respect the identities of others.

I had an opportunity to practice this at IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Atlanta, thanks to the Alumni Leadership Development Fund. I’m excited not only by the relationships across different religious and non-religious boundaries that I formed there, but also about meeting other Evangelicals who are excited about interfaith cooperation.

I would challenge my fellow Evangelicals to consider interfaith cooperation as an opportunity to live into Christ’s command to love others by building relationships across lines of difference and to listen before presuming anything about another’s religious or non-religious identity.

Likewise, I would also challenge my fellow allies in interfaith cooperation to be open to the presence of Evangelicals in interfaith work. Be careful not to talk about Evangelicals in sweeping statements about “their narrow-mindedness” or “ignorant proselytism.” Be mindful to allow each Evangelical to speak for his or herself, as you would want the same done for you

If we can listen to each other and allow people to speak for themselves, we take one step closer toward building common ground and working together for the common good.

This blog post was originally published on Interfaith Youth Core’s Blog on February 15, 2013

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The Selfishness of Salvation

N_Train_Enters_30th_Avenue_StationThis is a rant mostly relevant to my fellow Christians. Anyone else is welcome to come along for the ride though.

Recently, I saw a young man loudly shouting to the captive audience during the rush hour on the N train. Specifically, he was passionately pontificating on the certain damnation that awaited those who strayed from the Way of the one Jesus Christ, complete with the vivid imagery of fire and brimstone. But the reward if we choose wisely is an eternity with riches in heaven. Accustomed to any and all forms of absurdity, the mix of tired businessmen and women, several young Latina mothers an Orthodox Jewish man and an old Chinese woman with a pushcart of the wares she was vending, seemed rather unimpressed. Afterall, if you ride the subway in Queens, you’ve probably seen it all.

That’s when it struck me. I was quite familiar with the story, as I myself am an evangelical Christian, and remembering being sent to the streets of Portland in middle school to evangelize, complete with a small paper track that described the four-step path to salvation. Granted, our approach was much kinder than the hell and damnation talk we were witnessing this late spring afternoon, when the newly arrived humidity finds itself into the bowels of the city, and into the traincars struggling to air-condition the smell away.

But I was also struck with another thought, a new, perplexing, troubling, thought. Something about the reward of salvation made the whole thing feel a bit self-centered. Salvation was at the center of all Christian theology I was taught. The single most important thing in life was my status as “saved.” The only other thing that mattered was convincing more people to adopt said “saved” status.

While I still identify as an evangelical, my tendency to question has allowed me to grow theologically beyond some of the more common peripheral beliefs of the evangelical movement. It has given the opportunity to hear this language with fresh ears. Upon doing so, salvation-focused theology poses two issues to me.

The first issue dived into the very basis of our morality. As Christians we’re called to live a moral life. Without going into the much larger (and warranted) debate on the nature or morality, morality is most commonly seen as the way one should act to be a good, selfless person. Putting ethical standards above our own wants and needs. However, are we truly selfless in our actions if we are seeking a reward? If I help someone with no desire for a return, then we would assume that’s moral. But if I help someone because I believe next year they’ll give back to be tenfold? It sounds like an investment.

Here lies the challenge of spiritual investment: If we are are only being honest, faithful, loyal and humble for the payment of an eternal mansion in the sky, then are we really being “good people”? If we allow salvation to be our true motive in living moral lives, then I can’t see how we’re not self-serving in the process. Do good, or else.

Which brings me to the second issue, the else. Just as heaven makes a compelling incentive for upright living, hell sure sounds like a scary place. And we can work our way backwards. If my main reason for serving God and living righteously is out of fear of eternal damnation, then how authentic is my devotion?

This is a line of logic that you can take into very murky territory. Is there any good you could do worth risking of your salvation? Today, like everyday, 16,000 children will die of hunger-related causes. Would you risk your salvation to keep them alive? If God would punish you for taking such a risk, is a God worthy of worship? Would you embrace eternal damnation upon yourself to end all human suffering? These hypotheticals should challenge us to ask if we’re really selfless in our daily lives, or just following the rules for the rewards.

This isn’t an argument about how we should look at the concepts of heaven and hell. It’s about motivation. If we let go of whether or not we are saved, or other people are saved, and love as Jesus instructed, perhaps the rest can work itself out. Maybe if we focused on making sacrifice, actual sacrifice from our own comfort for the glory of God in selfless service, rather than shouting at crowd of commuters on the N train, people may actually take notice.

This piece originally appeared here in Huffington Post Religion.

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An Evangelical’s Sacred Ground

In summer 2010, a few blocks from Ground Zero, my values were under attack too.

I can still see the image vividly: a white poster board decorated with red and blue markers, as if to suggest its message was patriotic:“All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”Eboo Patel’s new book, Sacred Ground, revisits the scene of Cordoba House to frame a discussion on pluralism and interfaith leadership in America. Eboo offers apt perspective as an American Muslim and director of Interfaith Youth Core, but the discourse that took place around Park Place that summer is not only important for Muslims and interfaith activists.I am an Evangelical Christian, and there is something personal for me at stake in the midst of bigotry that deals precisely with my religious identity. I deliberated over that identity for a time but realized that “evangelical” best describes my understanding of what it means to respond to the Christian gospel and emulate the example of Christ.Yet some of the loudest voices of intolerance call themselves Evangelicals too. Earlier this month, Pat Robertson blamed atheists for the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek. This spring Bryan Fischer publicly attacked the Romney campaign for hiring a gay man. After 9/11, Jerry Fallwell pointed his finger wildly at a wide variety of people who didn’t believe the same things he did.


Yet they call themselves Evangelical Christians.In Sacred Ground, Eboo notes the influence of the evangelical masses in American politics, suggesting that “when Evangelicals change, America changes.” And in many ways he’s right – he cites the Evangelical-led anti-Catholic movement of the 1960 election and draws parallels to present-day islamophobia, which in many ways is led by Evangelical figures.But Evangelicals aren’t a hopeless bunch. That’s why, on the occasions I’ve talked to Christians about interfaith cooperation, I often start with a picture of that man standing on Park Place in lower Manhattan, holding the handwritten sign in blue and red marker.And I ask my fellow Evangelicals: “Is this what you believe?”There is a simple, profound reason why it’s not what I believe. It’s because of relationships. It’s because of working with Muslims in my community to do things like feed the hungry and provide healthcare to the uninsured. And there’s precedence for this, as Eboo notes: relationships between Evangelicals and Catholics explain the shift that has changed attitudes about Catholicism since the 1960’s. But even deeper and more historic than 1960’s America is the example of Jesus Christ: the ethic of loving your neighbor.

I’m thankful for the Evangelical leaders who are setting interfaith relationships as a priority for the Evangelical tradition, from Gabe Lyons, who has created dialogue with the Imam behind Park51, to Jim Wallis and the staff at Sojourners. Not to mention Skye JethaniNicholas PriceBob Roberts and many others who are leading the change.

My prayer is that Evangelical Christianity can shed the rhetoric of criticism and judgment and regain a reputation as a tradition centered on relationships, first our relationship with God, then relationships with neighbors of all traditions. This is why, for Evangelicals, all ground is sacred ground: we’re called always and everywhere to a tradition of relationships that is as old as the Evangelical tradition itself.

This piece was originally posted on the Interfaith Youth Core’s blog.

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Feeding the Trolls, or Feeding Ourselves?: Thoughts on Disagreement.

The trolls. (Har-har.)

While the internet is a wonderful thing, I’ve realized that it often brings me much more grief than it does pleasant experiences. Much of the grief comes from the absolute cacophony that such an open forum as the internet invites. Sometimes, even seemingly innocuous things provoke endless comment streams that run on and on and quickly devolve into topics that don’t have anything to do with the original post (which could be anything from a news story to a Facebook status lauding one’s favorite sports team).

It all feels like lots of yelling and talking past one another.

This kind of interaction has given rise to an entirely new ignoble class of person: the troll. And sometimes, we can become unintentional trolls, simply because, I think, we aren’t all that skilled at disagreeing with one another, but we are taught from an early age how to criticize.

Moreover, disagreement has the interesting ability to imply aggression, which can lead to barbed responses. Example: “I’m a vegetarian” does not have to imply that “I judge you for eating meat and want to make sure you never eat meat again.” It simply stands on its own. Yet so often I think we tend to see disagreement as carrying with it some sort of nefarious intention to undermine our own stance, when this isn’t always the case.

Thus whenever engaging in any debate or discussion, online or otherwise, I try to remember these three things about those with whom I may disagree:

  1. Be generous. Always give others the benefit of the doubt. Assume they have the best intentions in mind, and remember that they are a fellow human being with real convictions, emotions, and ideas.
  2. Be gracious. Don’t immediately dismiss another’s claims as unreasonable; assume they have reason for believing what they do (even if it is misguided). Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand where they are coming from. This allows one to be kind and understanding, and, hopefully, to come away from the conversation having learned something new. Forgive others if they accidentally step on your toes.
  3. Be humble. Surprisingly, you might not know everything. Always keep this in mind when talking with someone else. Remain aware of your own potential faults and whether or not you may be letting a perceived aggression sour your ability to engage with the other person.

Sometimes disagreements are had where none initially exist, and all because either party was not willing to slow down and engage with the other side with empathy and patience. Don’t get me wrong– it is certainly permissible (and even right) to disagree at times. But if we (myself included) don’t keep these three things in mind, then we won’t be disagreeing about the right issues.

My experiences in formal (and informal) interfaith discussions have helped show me not only that adopting these three precepts can benefit both sides, but that they also simply work. Have any other things to add to this list? I’d love to hear them. Want to expound on one of the three points already listed? Take issue with one (or more)? I’d love to hear that, too!

Weigh in below!

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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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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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Atheists and Evangelicals in Dialogue, Garden Plots, and Things to Come…

Okay, I know I said there would be some reading material over here, and I’ll admit that Greg and I have not been the most diligent about making that a reality. And for that, I apologize. (Sound familiar? Guess that’s what happens once the semester starts up and you have two students running a blog.) Anyway, I’m here now to provide an update on some of the things Greg and I have been doing.

First, I would like to say that the lunchtime discussion addressing relations between atheists and evangelicals went rather well. Held in the Women’s Resource Center at the U of I, attendees were treated with free lunch, which probably helped the 35 or so people in the room stand Greg’s explanation of interfaith and evangelical identity (just kidding, Greg). Adam Garner and Emily Ansusinha, our fellow Interfaith in Action exec. board members rounded out the panel, and provided some friendly back-and-forth about the atheist/agnostic experience with the evangelical community.

My personal takeaway from the talk was this: I discovered that I still can’t really wrap up a statement well, and could stand to do better than simply trailing off and saying, “But yeah, anyway…” before looking at my fellow panel members to take over. Again, I mentioned we had free lunch, right?

My (sometimes poor) panel-discussion skills aside, Greg and I enjoyed ourselves, and afterward had a few audience members come up to us and ask questions.

The following weekend, I served with Adam (mentioned above) and a few other members of Interfaith in Action to build community garden plots for the Champaign Health District as part of the Illinois Interfaith and Community Service Challenge in remembrance of the tragedy of September 11, 2001. After the service project, we were able to have a dialogue with those who worked on the project, discussing how one’s faith can influence and inspire service. Our discussion and reflections proved a powerful reminder that religio-cultural difference does not have to cause the violence and strife of the events we remembered that day, but can instead act as a catalyst for tremendous good.

This evening (Thursday, 22 September), I will host an Interfaith in Action “Speedfaithing” event at the University YMCA, where anyone interested can come and learn about the basic beliefs of the Hindu tradition. Dharma, the University of Illinois student Hindu group, is helping us with the event. If you’re on the U of I campus, don’t miss it!

Look for Greg’s Gabe Lyons’ posts to appear here soon, as well as more information on our upcoming “Evangelical Identity and Interfaith Cooperation” First Tuesday Talk given at the University YMCA on October 4th. We are also in the process of developing that media content we promised, which should also make its debut in the near future. Until then…

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FLP- The Vision of Things to Come

As the new school year kicks off, Greg and I have finally been able to meet physically (no more Skype!) and discuss plans for the future of FLP. Out of these conversations have come many exciting ideas, and I will share a few of them with you now!

In attempt to provide quality content, Greg and I often spend a few hours per post, shooting each one back and forth at least once or twice for proofreading before formatting it and queuing it up to go on the site. This makes publishing new content a rather lengthy process, and thus whenever either of our schedules become even the least bit hectic, things fall silent around here.

To combat this, Greg and I have agreed to operate this a bit more like a conventional blog, posting shorter, less formal pieces while continuing to post the more in-depth pieces we have been posting since day one.

Greg and I maintain active leadership roles in the University of Illinois’ student interfaith group, Interfaith in Action, where we both serve as executive board members, as well as serve on the leadership team charged with implementing the President’s Interfaith Service Challenge issued earlier this year. All this, in addition to being full-time students, leaves us at times with precious little in the way of free time. Despite this, our passion for, and devotion to, the mission of FLP remains strong and steadfast; we just have to get better at balancing this blog with our day-to-day lives.

We will update ya’ll with news about our activities, both in Interfaith in Action and in our work implementing the President’s Challenge. After all, this blog is about Christians engaging in interfaith work, and that means practicing what we preach!

So, here’s what you can expect:

  • More Tweets! Messages from myself will be signed “-C.” and messages from Greg will be signed “-G.”
  • Frequent updates to the blog, including less ‘formal’ posts
  • More guest posts (hopefully expanding to a rotation of other regular contributors)
  • New media content, such as videos, talks, etc.

In the meantime, look for Greg’s posts on Gabe Lyons’ book The Next Christians.

Please follow us on Twitter, “like” us on Facebook, tell your friends, and continue to check back regularly for new content! We look forward to stepping into the future of FLP with all of you!

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