Category Archives: Evangelism

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.

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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.

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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!

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Unfavorable Opinions

This piece was originally posted by Faith Line Protestants co-founder Greg Damhorst on the Interfaith Youth Core blog at http://www.ifyc.org/content/unfavorable-opinions.

Yesterday the Pew Forum released a Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders that caught my attention. I was first intrigued by a headline that read: “Evangelical Leaders see Secularism as Greater Threat than Islam,” but as I read on, I realized there was something even deeper.

I am constantly intrigued with the interaction of evangelicals and people of other faith traditions, including those from non-religious traditions. Especially in the interfaith movement – a movement that seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm – I am fascinated by the role the evangelical tradition will play.

The Pew Forum has given the world a subtle glimpse of why I feel this way:

“On the whole, the evangelical Protestant leaders express favorable opinions of adherents of other faiths in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But of those who express an opinion, solid majorities express unfavorable views of Buddhists (65%), Hindus (65%), Muslims (67%) and atheists (70%). Interestingly, the leaders who live in Muslim-majority countries generally are more positive in their assessments of Muslims than are the evangelical leaders overall.”

Survey results from Pew Forum Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders

These statistics represent views held by 2,196 evangelical leaders toward faith communities. But when I look at these numbers, I don’t see communities – I see faces.

65% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Buddhists and 65% have an unfavorable view of Hindus, but when I think of those traditions I remember the Buddhist and the Hindu who I worked with to start a project to provide relief to earthquake survivors in Haiti last year.

67% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Muslims, but I can’t ignore the Avicenna Community Health Center, which reaches out to the uninsured in my community alongside religious and non-religious folks who are passionate about bringing health to those who can’t access care.

And while the 70% of evangelicals who view atheists unfavorably can likely blame the anti-religious rhetoric of a few individuals, I can’t help but look at the non-religious in a different light because of my relationships with people like Chris Stedman, Adam Garner, and Chelsea Link (the latter two have joined me in the new class of Better Together coaches this year!)

I’m willing to bet that these unfavorable views do nothing to enhance the evangelistic efforts of my fellow Christians – that they only hinder our ability to genuinely communicate the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I’m willing to bet that those who hold these unfavorable views don’t have meaningful relationships with people from other faith backgrounds.

When I look at the example that Jesus set – the example I work hard to emulate – I see relationships. In fact, they were often relationships with the people whom pious folks viewed unfavorably.

It is significant that evangelical leaders in Muslim-majority countries are more positive about Muslims than the worldwide trend. In my opinion, it’s probably because those evangelical leaders actually have Muslim friends.

It’s time for the evangelical community to stop being afraid of perceived threats to our faith and to start engaging with the world in a positive way. Relationships are the key to changing our perspectives. My prayer is that we all would understand the power they contain.

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What Does It Mean To Be Evangelical?: Defining Terms, Understanding Identities Pt II

Seemingly everyone is middle class. Ask someone who makes $75,000 a year and someone who makes double that amount, and both will tell you they’re “middle class.” And, it seems, even millionaires in the US claim to be middle class, as this 2007 survey indicates (I’d like to see what people would say now, in a post-recession economy). So who is right? What defines “middle class”?

Based upon data collected in surveys like the one above, “middle class” has come more to define a mentality than a dollar amount. If you feel middle class and act middle class, then you are, regardless of income, considered middle class—it has become a kind of sensibility. Does a similar notion also apply to evangelicals?

I think so.

I feel that, in some way, all Christians are evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, progressive or conservative, like it or not. We can’t escape the fact that evangelism is encoded within the DNA of the Christian faith, regardless of difference in denominational belief. Yet the definitions of the word that float through society don’t always accommodate this diversity.

As I see it, there are two easily identifiable definitions of the word “evangelical,” and one that is much harder to pin down: the first easily recognizable definition is used predominantly within the church community and the other is used predominantly outside of it. We will address the third one in a moment.

The first definition aligns rather closely with the one given in the OED, and stresses biblical inerrancy, salvation by faith alone, etc.

The second definition uses “evangelical” in a broad and often ambiguous way to describe basically any protestant who professes to be a Christian.

One can see this second definition come through in the recent flurry of activity surrounding Harold Camping’s rapture predictions. Multiple media outlets (here are just two examples: one, two) have referred either to Camping himself or/and to his media organization as “evangelical,” and I’ve heard it tossed around regularly in conversation that it’s those “evangelicals” who are at it again predicting the end of the world. And in some way, I can see where this assumption/association comes from: was it not the evangelicals who ate up the Left Behind series? Did not Camping’s followers harness evangelistic tactics to get their message out? Do they not conform to the OED’s definition? Are we not at least broadly discussing the same group of people?

Yet most evangelicals thought Camping was (and is) a loon. Even Tim LaHaye, the author of the  Left Behind series and prominent avowed evangelical, denounced Camping’s predictions as ridiculous.

I think you can see the difficultly here. If the word currently holds two meanings, but neither is stringently adhered to, then the word only leads to confusion and mis-categorization. I, for one, have quite a lot of Christian friends who might deem themselves “evangelical” in some sense of the word, but certainly don’t want to find themselves roped into Camping’s gang… or even Tim LaHaye’s gang.

This is where we find a third definition lurking in the background of this discussion. I represent that third definition. I am inclined to think of myself as an evangelical by virtue of the fact that I place importance on both sharing and living the Gospel, I believe in the transforming power of my faith, and I make no effort to hide my faith from others—I am, if you will, more than publicly Christian. I have many friends who would say the same for themselves; however, none of us would ever want to draw an association between us and the oft-stereotyped “evangelical” that demands donations on TV or hearkens back to the days of the Moral Majority. We don’t own that definition, and consequently, we don’t really own the one given in the OED, either.

Thus for us the question of mis-association becomes more pronounced. Is it necessary to say that someone must believe in total depravity of the human soul or biblical inerrancy as prerequisites to sharing their faith with the world? This assumption seems silly and needlessly exclusive. To me, those theological appendages fall subordinate to the importance of the gospel narrative.

While I’m certainly no lexicographer, I believe we need to reshape the word “evangelical” around this more universally Christian foundation (the one found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), as it seems strange to use such a narrow definition of a term that can be applied to so many different Christians in as many different contexts. It only leads to confusion and ambiguity. If we fail to extend the definition to those outside the more fundamentalist box—or for that matter the Calvinist box or the biblical inerrantist box or the anti-gay box or the televangelist’s health and wealth box—of the Christian faith, then I believe we endanger ourselves in a media-saturated world where terms get tossed around without much thought to their association or meaning.

As a Christian attempting to strengthen interfaith relationships, I become attuned to categories and their oftentimes-harmful connotations. I also see how categories can come to define one’s identity. I believe that interfaith cooperation is a way of evangelizing. However, Greg and I have encountered those who seem skeptical of this—what we’re trying to do, some say, is more assimilation that evangelization. And while I don’t buy it, such a criticism does pose the questions: What does it look like to evangelize? Who is an evangelical? In some ways, finding answers to these two issues undergirds all that Greg and I do at FLP, and gets at our very identity as Christians.

Anyway, this has run on too long. You now have my opinion on the matter— I’d love to hear yours! Should “evangelical” have an inclusive definition that accommodates to some extent all Christians, or do you think it should describe a narrow sect of the Christian faith? What do you think are the implications of both? Weigh in below!

(Also check out this great blog by renowned Baylor theologian Roger E Olson, which Greg found after I had written much of this post. Dr. Olsen explores much these same issues—I highly recommend giving it a read.)

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What Does It Mean To Be Evangelical?: Defining Terms, Understanding Identities

Look up “evangelical” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you will find roughly twelve meanings that stretch back nearly 500 years to William Tyndale’s use of the term in 1531. (“He exhorteth them to procede constauntly in the euangelicall truth.” Yeah, spelling’s changed a bit since then.) Yet the definition that concerns me most is the one that expounds upon the “evangelical” as a sect of the Christian faith. The OED says:

b. From 18th c. applied to that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of ‘the Gospel’ consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy.

Other features more or less characteristic of the theology of this school are: a strong insistence on the totally depraved state of human nature consequent on the Fall; the assertion of the sole authority of the Bible in matters of doctrine, and the denial of any power inherent in the Church to supplement or authoritatively interpret the teaching of Scripture; the denial that any supernatural gifts are imparted by ordination; and the view that the sacraments are merely symbols, the value of which consists in the thoughts which they are fitted to suggest…

It goes on to give a brief history of the word as used by various Christian sects, noting its proclivity for Calvinist adherents and “Low Church” Anglicans.

Look up “influential evangelical leaders” in a Google Images search, and you will find pictures of figures from a rather wide spectrum: Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Francis Schaeffer, Ted Haggard, Joyce Meyer, Rob Bell, Tim Challies, Mike Huckabee, Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, Billy Graham, Brian McLaren, Jerry Falwell, John Piper, and James Dobson, to name a few.

So, what do we make of this definition? These “evangelical” figures? Is “evangelical” even a meaningful word? Does it transcend denominational boundaries or does it describe Christians only of a certain stripe?

I have to admit that, for me, “evangelical” has become an almost pejorative term and, in some cases, a caricature. And I don’t think I’m alone. It has seemingly gone from being a simple descriptor to a synonym for “fundamentalist” (or even “obnoxious”) in the parlance of my generation, gathering significant political connotations and associations that many of us Millennials don’t necessarily agree with. Organizations like Recovering Evangelical (check them out, they’ve got some great stuff on their site) are gaining steam, and media like Relevant magazine have become the new mouthpiece for a young generation of Christians that don’t know how to own the “evangelical” label.

Indeed, the OED corroborates this shift, showing how the contemporary connotations of the word in secular speech tend toward the negative. From the 1993 edition:

4. transf. Eager to share one’s enthusiasm with others; hortatory, proselytizing.

Take a look at the names I listed above. Can all those figures really be lumped together? Is there a common thread that links them? While some fit the OED definition, many do not. And, despite its sometimes negative connotation, many of my generation– including myself– still identify with the label “evangelical” in some way or another. To be an evangelical seems so broad, and yet also carries a rather specific meaning.

So what does it mean to be an evangelical? Is it a social term, a political term, a religious term, or a bit of all of these? Do you think titling yourself as an evangelical automatically produces negative connotations? None at all?

I believe in the importance of answering these questions and forging perhaps new and more helpful definitions of what it means to be evangelical that better articulate and encapsulate the universal identities of all Christians and their involvement in the world. In my next post, I’ll make my case for what I believe “evangelical” should mean and why. Until then, please share your own thoughts on what being “evangelical” does/should mean, and how this affects the perception of Christians in the world.

Also, look for my posts on the early church to resume in the coming weeks, as well as our first guest post from the Rev. Tim Baranoski on Monday! (In the meantime, check out some of Rev. Tim’s blogs at his own site The Timothy Blog.)

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To Boldly Go: What the Acts of the Apostles Say About Interfaith

Raphael, _Acts of the Apostles_ tapestry. (Taken from http://toto.lib.unca.edu/)

 

When approaching the early church from a Biblical perspective, one must unavoidably begin with the Acts of the Apostles (or, as many Bibles have it—simply “Acts”). This book, which comes right after the Gospel of John, tells of the apostles’ interactions in the world after Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection.

In many ways, Acts is a rather odd book. It’s filled with miracles, martyrdoms, conversions, and the curious workings of the so-called “holy spirit,” which serves as a source of spiritual guidance and power.

One may fairly ask what this book has to do—if anything—with interfaith cooperation. After all, nearly every story told in its pages has the apostles going into a group of non-believers, proclaiming the Gospel, and then either winning followers to their cause or getting thrown in prison (sometimes both). And, in a few instances, we are told of an apostle being put to death for proclaiming his faith.

To the outsider, Acts can certainly seem aggressive and rather off-putting (what is all this “speaking in tongues” business, anyway?) and even to the seasoned church-goer can pose some interesting questions. Yet I think there’s something quite important one can gain here that bears significance when discussing how evangelism intersects with interfaith.

All throughout the book, the writer of Acts describes the apostles as having proclaimed their faith boldly. This boldness is important. As I’ve already mentioned, spreading the Gospel of Jesus was risky business, and the apostles—and by extension, any member of the early church—were willing to die for it. They possessed a deep conviction for their message, presumably because, as the Bible says, they knew it to be true. Peter and the others had walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, and dined with Jesus… after he had died.

One of the criticisms Greg and I hear most often regarding interfaith work is that it entails a diluting of one’s faith and a stunting of one’s evangelical power. The thought runs something like this: “Interfaith cooperation requires respect for others’ beliefs, thus inhibiting my ability to tell them about Christ and their need for salvation. Therefore it is useless to become involved in interfaith because it does not necessarily result in large numbers of converts at the end.” Indeed, did not the early church strive to convert all those who they encountered?

I would say that this approach comes from two places: 1.) a possible fear of/lack of faith in one’s Christian beliefs, or 2.) a misunderstanding of how interfaith cooperation typically works.

Typically in interfaith scenarios, one’s faith is put on the table—people know you are a Christian. It then becomes your actions that define what living a Christian life means to you. In interfaith work, everyone acknowledges a fundamental theological disagreement; Christians know that theologically they differ tremendously from Jews and Muslims and Sikhs, for example, and that each believes they hold the exclusive religious truth. Thus, the Christian willing to use interfaith as a platform for evangelism does not need to state outright the exclusive claims made by their faith unless asked to do so. What should happen instead is that Christians enact the teachings of their faith to show what it means to them and what it means to others who choose to live by its precepts, and, when given the opportunity, share their story of how the Christian faith has transformed their life and motivated them to serve the community and the world.

When we shrink from engaging in interfaith cooperation, I believe we fail to proclaim our faith with boldness. Now, I know that, to some, this notion may seem and sound rather counter-intuitive. I know that one may say that this boldness/conviction should actually give license to the believer to rebuke those of other faiths. Indeed, even the apostles did this when addressing the Pharisees and the like.

Yet I think we need to be cautious here, as we do not operate in the same period under the same contexts as the apostles did, and we must adapt our notions of evangelism accordingly. Simply stating that Christians believe to hold exclusively the truth necessary for salvation would be, as I stated above, just stating the obvious in interfaith dialogue. Everyone doing interfaith work knows that each faith claims something exclusive, and so we must look for a better way of expressing our faith with boldness than rebuking others, which can so easily fall prey to over generalization and the preaching of a fire-and-brimstone message of eternal damnation. (As many have pointed out in these past months, this message is not a popular one in today’s culture, but I won’t get into that here.)

I believe that there is a way to find balance. I believe that there is a way to show boldness through your actions that do not define themselves against others. What do you think? Is it possible to be bold for your faith in interfaith cooperation efforts without coming across as preachy? Or do you think interfaith does in fact stunt our ability to proclaim our faith?

What do the Acts of the Apostles say about interfaith?

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Dialogue or Debate?

Last spring, there was a public conversation between atheist John Loftus and Christian Dinesh D’Souza on my campus.  It was well-publicized and well-attended – packing the 1,936 seat auditorium with an audience from all walks of life.

Such a buzz, however, produced little.  It took the form of a debate: a minister-turned-atheist who attempted to use his vast education in the Christian tradition to legitimize his conclusions about the nonexistence of God and an academic Christian who presented his faith with an air of intelligence and logic.

Their banter got my thoughts churning about why I believe what I believe, but I walked out of the auditorium the same person I was when I entered – although perhaps a little more frustrated.  And at many points during the debate, especially when their exchange began to seep into ad hominem attacks instead of formal debate, I wondered what the hundreds of students here were hoping to accomplish by attending.

Interfaith work, rooted in respectful dialogue, presents a different kind of conversation about religion.  My friend Chris Stedman, a secular humanist, once said:

“This is the difference between dialogue and debate: debate is sharing in hopes of convincing; dialogue is sharing and listening in hopes of increasing understanding. In my opinion, we need more of the latter and less of the former.”

I agree with Chris.  And here’s why: history has shown us that little is accomplished in debate.  I’m willing to bet both sides of the issue, especially when that issue is the existence of God, walk out of the room more frustrated and annoyed than enlightened.  Dialogue, however, has the potential to inspire, build understanding, and develop relationships.

But let’s step back for a moment.  As an evangelical, I believe that the world needs to hear the message that my faith teaches.  I believe that it’s something of eternal consequence, and I believe that the loving approach to my neighbor is to communicate that message to them.  So when it comes to a choice between debate with the hope of convincing, and dialogue with the hope of increasing understanding, which do I choose?

For some time I would have chosen debate.  Naturally, an issue of eternal consequence carries a sense of urgency.  But since I began doing interfaith work, I have come to question the effectiveness of debate.  And I’ve heard it said that it is a symptom of insecurity that I’m not interested in arguing my faith’s validity against its greatest critics.  So is it a cop-out?

No, I choose dialogue because of my security in my faith.  I choose dialogue because it is an ally more powerful the soundest argument.  I choose dialogue because Jesus spread a message of love through listening, serving, and telling stories, not attacking, condemning or criticizing.  I choose dialogue because I believe that Jesus is the Truth and that understanding the truth is more powerful than being persuaded of it.

I have found that being a Christian in interfaith work does not mean putting evangelism on hold–no, it means understanding better what evangelism is all about, and taking the message of Jesus Christ to a table where ears are open and lives can be changed.

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