Category Archives: Evangelism

Overreaching Our “Outreach:” Rethinking Evangelism in Interfaith Cooperation (Part II)

In part I of this series, I talked about how what Greg and I call the “homework” model of evangelism fails to address the specificities of a scenario involving an interfaith dynamic. To better understand how this task-based way of evangelizing would come off to others, I try to put myself in the shoes of an outsider.

For instance, what if I was a practicing Hindu, one of my Christian friends invited me to an event, and I agreed to go. Suppose that the thrust of this event was to show the inadequacies of my life without Jesus and then propose that I renounce my current beliefs in order to mend my problems and prevent me from landing in hell for all eternity. Beneath the whole premise of the event sits a peculiar but powerful thing: a critique of my own Hindu beliefs and identity—beliefs that hold great significance and meaning to me, and that have allowed me to live a happy and fulfilled life.

Furthermore, (and the aspect that I think conflicts most with the intersection of evangelism and interfaith cooperation) this way of evangelizing only works with one particular people group—those who have little convictions of their own, have deep wounds for which they seek spiritual healing, or those who probably already spend time on the fringes of Christianity anyway. Thus the common aim of evangelism becomes a simple persuasion to become more involved than before or to convince someone they should pray a prayer to accept Christ.

Someone who already possesses a strong (or even moderate, for that matter) belief in another religion or tradition will not simply surrender those views at the drop of a hat, especially if they possess no perceived need. And that’s okay. I believe that an attempt at manipulating them to do so by an appeal to pathos, eliciting a strong emotional response, isn’t genuine.

Hence our first reaction should not be “here, this is why you’re wrong,” but to show through our actions, “this is how our faith transforms.” We must demonstrate why we are a positive force in the world that can change and revolutionize lives for good. Again I say: would it not be more powerful to lead by example, to showcase my faith by the way I live than to tell someone why they should believe in it?

If we allow for dialogue and discussion—for give-and-take—then the playing field becomes more level. Each person is inquiring, each person answering. No one is put at a disadvantage, personal story becomes the strong bonds between various faiths, and all participants in the discussion retain their agency. These types of discussions are central to the IFYC’s model of interfaith dialogue. And don’t we as Christians already place significance on the power of testimony in our tradition? So long as you refrain from setting a goal at the end of telling it, a perfect platform exists to share.

I know that this is a contentious topic, and there are plenty of things in these two posts with which to take issue. That’s good. I’ve only put forth a half-expounded idea that I hope can spark quality, civil conversation. Telling people about Jesus Christ is part of our identity. The question is: how do we embrace it, both in an interfaith context and otherwise? Please, contribute and join the discussion.

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Overreaching Our “Outreach:” Rethinking Evangelism in Interfaith Cooperation (Part I)

We had sung some songs, played a silly game, watched an edgy, well-edited video montage peppered with pop-culture images and distressed teens. The speaker told a few jokes and threw in an anecdote about a time in his childhood when he had done something really embarrassing. He came across as charming and easy to identify with. As he discussed Scripture, one could see his passion for the message; he stressed—emphasized repeatedly— God’s deep love for creation. In fact, he said that God’s love was so immense that he sent his only Son to die for our sins.

And then he asked for us to bow our heads in prayer. He had the band come back to the stage, and right on cue came a few arpeggiated chords from an acoustic guitar, joined by a soft synth pad. One moment later came the melodic electric guitar, dripping in reverb and ping-pong delay. “Now I know that for some of you tonight, God is calling you to his presence. He’s asking you to [insert reference to anecdote/Bible story] and follow him…”

But you know the rest. If you have grown up in the church, there is almost no way you would have avoided this kind of situation (or one quite similar), the likes of which permeated my own adolescent church life. We were encouraged to bring friends to these events—often billed as “outreach” events— with the idea that by getting them in the seat, we could somehow get them to commit their life to Christ.

Greg and I have elsewhere referred to this common kind of evangelism as the “homework model,” and must admit that we don’t necessarily agree with it. In this version of evangelism, you are given an assignment—in this case, to tell an un-churched friend about Christ— and you fulfill your task either by sharing your faith with said person or bringing them along to your outreach event next week.

The emotional experiences described above are not inherently wrong—I’ve had my share of meaningful moments at church retreats and the like—but that they aren’t always appropriate. When dealing with others of strong conviction (whether religious or not) we must act and approach things differently.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Great Commission poses an interesting issue with interfaith work; it asks us to examine how we represent Christ to the world, and doesn’t mean that evangelism stands in opposition to interfaith cooperation.

For me, the problem with the “homework” model of outreach evangelism lies in its assumptions. It presupposes a rather weighty purchase on the valuation of the sacred that says you possess the only real truth in the world, and, for others to get it, they must come to you. This automatically puts the other person at a kind of disadvantage. Regardless of whether we as Christians do in fact have all the answers is irrelevant—the point here is not that we hold the truth, but that it is disrespectful by proffering it in this way.

So how do we as Christians interested in interfaith cooperation rethink this model? What would it look like if we taught young Christians how to emulate Christ in the world through service and compassion instead of charging them with a requirement to bring a friend in order to be affirmed as a good Christian next week? Check back for Part II, where I’ll explore this topic further.

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Where We’re Headed: Beginning a Conversation on Evangelism and Interfaith Work

Faith Line Protestants was born early one Friday morning at a coffee shop at the University of Illinois.  Cameron and I had just represented the U of I at the IFYC‘s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington D.C., and had realized we had something in common– an evangelical perspective on interfaith work.

So as we talked over coffee, we shared our experiences: church congregations that quarreled amongst themselves more than they served others, evangelism strategies that made sharing the gospel seem unnatural and awkward, and the excitement of interfaith work as a new arena for living out our faith.

Hoping to change the discussion regarding interfaith and the evangelical Christian community, we decided to start writing about our thoughts and experiences.  But that’s not because we have it all figured it out.  Cameron and I have discovered something exciting in interfaith work: a practical model for inter-religious cooperation which suggests that religious violence can be ended, social issues can be addressed, and meaningful relationships can be established between disparate peoples.

Though at first we thought we’d be simply making the case for interfaith involvement, we’re really beginning a journey of exploring the intersection of interfaith work and evangelism.  There seems to be an unnecessary tension between the Biblical imperatives to “make disciples of all nations” and to “love your neighbor,” to proselytize and to practice respect.  Individually convinced by the reasons for interfaith involvement discussed in our previous posts, we’ve dived in and have been unpacking this tension along the way.

While we don’t yet have a thorough way of articulating our discoveries, we realize that we are compelled to be not just participants, but leaders of interfaith cooperation.  And we would like to suggest that honest participation in interfaith work might even be a better witness than many of the “best practices” for evangelism which we have been taught through our Christian education.

This is a call to other evangelicals who are sick of seeing the man on the quad, holding a sign that says “God hates gays” and yelling about an impending hell.  It is a call to those who struggle with the awkwardness of forced spiritual discussions and cold-turkey proselytization.  It is a call to those who desire to make known the love of Christ in a genuine way.

We move forward with further discussion on the evangelism-interfaith tension; we have stories of relationships and convictions, frustrations and inspirations.  We’ll look to current events and Biblical themes for an understanding of how and why we approach interfaith work as evangelicals.  You are invited to respond, to argue, and to discover with us.

 

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Photo by pop catalin (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/catalin82)

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Opening the Doors: Barriers to Interfaith Involvement (Intro)

Many of you will remember it. The New York Times headline read: “Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans.” (For those who don’t remember it, you can read the article here.) Hitting the news in late September of this past year, the Pew Forum’s survey of Americans’ religious literacy yielded some surprising—and rather sobering—results. It turns out that the least religious people in the country, with an average score of about 63 percent, are the most informed on the world’s main religious traditions, while the white mainline and evangelical Protestants averaged only about 50 percent.

Though one could see this information as reason for interfaith work to improve religious literacy within the church (which we address later on), Greg and I also see something else—a barrier of ignorance between people of various faiths. It’s difficult to interact with someone whose life seems so very different from your own, and for which you have no frame of reference. This is an old trope, often spoofed for comedic effect in movies and books: the wealthy city-slicker thrust into the lifestyle of a hard-working ranch hand, for example. These stories show the importance of understanding, and its power for affecting empathy; the wealthy city-slicker never leaves the ranch with the same perception of the job as he had when he arrived.

For the next five entries, we will be discussing what we feel are the commonest barriers between the Evangelical Christian community and interfaith work. These are the things that Greg and I have encountered in our personal journeys toward involvement with those of other faith communities; thus, it is certainly not an exhaustive list, but an anecdotal one. We would love these pieces to spark discussion and suggestions of other possible barriers (or “difficulties,” if you’d rather) commonly faced when engaging with people of other faiths. In these posts, we will address five topics:

Theological Pluralism: An exploration of retaining religious identity while still respecting and valuing other religious traditions.

Religious Illiteracy: Answering the question “Do you have to know everything about another faith in order to engage with them?”

Apathy: Why be involved in interfaith work when the status quo seems to be just fine?

Limited Capacity: Our churches and organizations are already doing so many activities and programs, does it really make sense to begin something new like interfaith outreach/involvement?

Tensions in Evangelism: Probing the question “Shouldn’t we be more concerned with evangelizing people of other faith traditions that learning to work together with them?”

Once this series on “Barriers” has ended, we will discuss reasons for overcoming them—why interfaith engagement is important for the Christian community. These initial series are meant to form a solid foundation of our mission and ideas, serving as a reference point for those who discover this blog later on. Greg and I look forward to sharing our ideas with you in the upcoming weeks!

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