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.