A different kind of conversation

You may be familiar with a narrative in which Christians don’t play nice with other people. Evangelicals in particular can be an aggressive bunch, always seeking the last word or the loudest voice, and it often hasn’t reflected well on those who identify as followers of Jesus. But as one of those followers of Jesus, I have hope that the narrative can change.

My friend Cameron Nations and I founded Faith Line Protestants in a coffee shop on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign nearly three years ago. It was the result of mutual experiences with interfaith cooperation and a shared sense that the Christian tradition does not always get it right. We fail to have an awareness regarding how to approach people who believe something different than what we believe. We fail to consider the experiences of others, and we fail to respect what others consider sacred.

This lack of awareness has often resulted in a choice to employ communication methods that convey criticism, judgment, and self-righteousness. It seems the younger generation of Jesus followers, myself included, are fed up with awkward encounters and the blow-hard rhetoric which has often taken place from a seat of privilege in our country. We’re a generation that’s asking ourselves if the Jesus we follow would have chosen the same words or even the same message that many Christian leaders are contributing via an ever-increasing number of media outlets. Furthermore, when we look honestly at the Christian scriptures depicting the life of Jesus, we catch a glimpse of a different kind of conversation: something relationship-oriented, kind, and loving.

And we have been asking what would happen if we approached our friends who are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Sikhs and Buddhists with the same humility that Jesus modeled. What if there was a way to talk about faith in which we could communicate respectfully and authentically? What if we found ourselves in a situation where we not only talked about compassion, but we also practiced it by serving alongside those we’ve been taught to try to convert, asking questions, and sharing stories?

Would it water-down our message? Or would it strengthen it?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve realized that there is a toolset available which seems to fit the description of a relationship-oriented approach to communicating the gospel, and it’s called interfaith cooperation. At first it seems counterintuitive for many of us raised in evangelical traditions: I have trained to be a “Contagious Christian”, dabbled in apologetics, and practiced conversion conversations, yet never once did I practice having genuine dialogue.

This week we are re-launching Faith Line Protestants as we seek to reignite enthusiasm for a conversation which encourages evangelical Christians toward relationships with people of other worldviews and faith traditions by engaging in social action based on shared values reflected in Jesus’ example of compassionate love.

And whether you’re skeptical of the concept or you find it refreshing, I hope that you’ll join us in this conversation. We’ve only waded into the shallow waters of a deeper discussion that is already overdue. It’s a discussion that deals with privilege and the common good, equality and bigotry, respect and meaning-making. And for me it all comes back to the realization that the One after whom I strive to model my life was a storyteller, relationship-oriented, and a servant.

I hope you’ll join us as we re-launch this conversation about following Jesus in a religiously diverse world.

Eats Well with Others

What does eating have to do with evangelism? If you grew up going to church, then you likely grew up attending church potlucks (or pitch-ins, or covered dishes—or, whatever they were called in your hometown).  Christian churches everywhere host meals on special occasions or following worship in the spirit of fellowship.  This practice is rooted in one of the basic tenets of our faith—that when we break bread together we are celebrating the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who offered us his flesh and blood (bread and cup) as a sign of his covenant with humanity. In order to follow Christ, we Christians eat together.

Long before Jell-O salad and deviled eggs, Christian communities came together to share the Lord’s Supper. But early Christians didn’t always break bread in the spirit Jesus showed.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul admonishes the followers of Christ in Corinth for eating in an unfaithful way: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”

In order to observe the Lord’s Supper, Paul points out that we cannot merely gather together; we have to gather in a spirit of hospitality and humility. No one can go hungry or thirsty at the Lord’s Supper. Paul goes on to say: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.” My New Testament professor, Dr. Brigette Kahl, says that the very definition of what it means to be Christian is to be a “co-eater”. To be a Christian is to eat with others; to wait for others; to sacrifice our own comfort for the comfort of others; to be one who sets a wide table at which everyone is welcome.  For Paul, this is no small command. Those who eat in an “unworthy manner” will face judgment and risk condemnation.

In our religiously diverse world, Christians are called to eat and fellowship with those of all faith traditions and backgrounds. We are called to extend the Lord’s Table beyond the church walls in order to make the example and teachings of Jesus a reality in our world. Interfaith cooperation is about being with others; in Christian terms, it is about eating with others. Evangelicals and all Christians embody the life and sacrifice of Jesus when we seek communion with all of the “others” around us, despite our differences.

 

Living the Gospel through Interfaith Cooperation

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I work in the Interfaith Center at University of North Florida in Jacksonville, FL. Several months back my boss and I met with a leader in the local LGBT community looking for ways to collaborate on student programming. In the meeting this leader was trying to better understand the purpose and vision of the Interfaith Center. In the process she asked how I identify myself religiously. I hesitated a moment before answering, then responded, “I identify as an Evangelical Christian.”
Why hesitate? Well, I wasn’t quite “out” at work as an Evangelical. Certainly my boss was mostly aware, but many of my students weren’t. For the most part my Evangelicalism wasn’t something I went around advertising – I don’t have a Jesus fish on my car nor do I wear cross necklace and I don’t (usually) blast Chris Tomlin from my office.

The LGBT community leader then stunned me with her follow up question: “What do you mean when you say you’re an ‘evangelical?'”

Why stunned? Well, I had never been asked this question before. Certainly I’d thought about it in my frantic attempt at articulating identity in seminary, but had certainly never been asked. So I hesitated, again, then said,

“When I say I’m an Evangelical, I mean that I believe there’s good news in Jesus for everyone.”

I admit that I was nervous about how this would be received as it was not my intention to proselytize in any way. But because I believe there’s good news in Jesus for everyone, if I’m being really honest with myself and others, I also want everyone to know Jesus.

We can get into questions about the meaning of salvation and eternity, the cross and the resurrection, grace, covenant, and all of that another time, but when I whittle it down to the lowest common denominator, everything (well okay, I’m a sinner so not everything) I do comes from my love for Jesus and my desire for others to know Christ.

Evangelical comes from the Greek evangelion which means “good news,” or gospel, so to be Evangelical is to be “of the good news” in word, deed and being.

What is the Good News?

The Good News, for me, is that God loves us.

We can make it more complicated than that, but for me the greatest news of all is that I am loved unconditionally by the creator of the universe simply for being; thus in being of that good news it is my responsibility to reflect the love of God to the best of my limited ability in all I do.

It is easy to generalize about any group of people and I am aware that Evangelicals have a reputation of being close-minded, hateful, ignorant, condescending and self-righteous. Assuming an individual person fits the generalized understanding about a group is much easier than building relationships and getting to know someone for who he or she truly is, but in my meeting with the LGBT community leader I was given the opportunity to speak for myself.

I felt loved and cared for when I was asked, “What do you mean when you say you’re an Evangelical?” I was put at ease and made more comfortable to enter into a conversation – and even friendship – with another person simply by being asked a question about my own self-understanding. It would have been quite easy to assume many things about me as and Evangelical as well as my views, beliefs, and understandings – but instead of holding onto potential presumptions, I was invited to speak for myself.

Jesus invites us into relationship with him because his love, his gospel, is relational. As a follower of Christ, I aim to do the same with others. Interfaith engagement provides me with ample opportunity to enter into relationships with people who are different from me, and to love others while existing in that difference.

Knowing that I feel loved when I’m given the space and opportunity to be known for who I am and who I understand myself to be, rather than be known by another’s presumption, motivates me to do the same for others.

That’s why I have joined the FLP ranks. I want to be part of a wider conversation that empowers Evangelicals to actively engage with this religiously diverse world in an authentic and open way, and invites all people – Christian and otherwise – to an honest conversation about religious and secular identity, and interfaith engagement. Thank you for reading FLP and I am excited to hear more about you!

Recognizing ‘Christian Privilege’

Rabbi Seth Goren writes on how the “dominance of Christianity affects interfaith relations.”

Talking about Christian privilege is challenging, but essential. For our conversations to be authentic, honest, and justice-based, we must be aware of how each of us perceives and is perceived. It’s difficult to prevent the marginalization that Christians sometimes feel without considering how inter- and intrafaith dynamics play out more broadly for members of other faiths.

Read the full article online at Sojourners Magazine.
Thoughts?

What My Southern Baptist Past Says About My Episcopal Present

cameron_cropI’ll confess: If I listed my relationship with Evangelicalism on my Facebook page, it would probably read “It’s Complicated.”

I grew up a Southern Baptist just outside Nashville, TN—the de facto headquarters for evangelical culture. In addition to being the home of country music, Nashville also lays claim to the Christian music industry, as well as other forms of Christian media such as Christian publishing houses Thomas Nelson, Abingdon Press, and LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Both the Southern Baptist Convention and most of the administrative offices of the United Methodist Church call Nashville home, as do the National Association of Free Will Baptists. The Gideons International—those guys who put Bibles in every hotel room—is also headquartered there. All this has earned it the nicknames “the Protestant Vatican” and the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s not surprising, then, that I grew up enmeshed in the evangelical Christian subculture. I played in a band, and we toured around various churches leading “worship nights,” interspersing our own material in between the Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United covers. I’ve even worked at the Dove Awards—the contemporary Christian music version of the Grammys— multiple times and have met a good many artists in the Christian music industry.

If anyone was (by appearances, at least) a thoroughgoing evangelical, I was. Yet from a young age I wasn’t sure I completely owned the identity I had spent so much time embodying.

Just as college came knocking, I felt a call to ordained ministry. Naturally I assumed that this call included a trip to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lousiville, KY before heading into a life as an aspiring megachurch pastor—a prospect I did not find altogether inspiring. Disenchanted with the Southern Baptist church and the evangelical subculture itself, I stepped back from a possible vocation as a minister and instead focused my energies on my writing and my studies.

I then began to wander. I devoured as much as I could about other denominations and even other religious traditions. At the University of Illinois I floated from church to church, but nowhere really felt like home. I became involved in interfaith work and encountered for the first time a cross-section of the world’s diverse religious traditions.

It was in the midst of this tumultuous time in my life that I fell in love with the liturgy (and I’ll admit even some of the theology) of the Roman Catholic Church. But this was during the thick of the sex abuse scandals, and in addition to some other misgivings regarding Roman Catholic belief I could not so easily jettison my Protestant convictions.

The Episcopal Church filled this void for me, providing the richness of the liturgy with theology of the Reformation. It seemed like a “big tent” where evangelicals (such as the newly-consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby) could exist alongside progressives and where “high church” worship styles could intermingle with guitars and pianos. Though still informed and influenced by my evangelical roots, my faith has also been strengthened and enriched by the incorporation of Anglo-Catholic theology and practice propagated by the 19th century Oxford Movement.

This interesting combination is a part of my story—my own journey and perspective—that I hope to bring to the pages of FLP.

Perhaps because of my own meandering journey I possess a passion for building bridges of understanding between different communities, and jumped at the chance to found FLP with Greg back in 2010 to encourage the evangelical community to participate in interfaith engagement. How we share the gospel with others, how we live out the gospel in our lives—these are central to part of the Christian faith, whatever your stripe. I’m excited about FLP’s re-launch and the new conversations we hope to foster!

Can Evangelicals be involved in interfaith work?

I’ve been working in the interfaith field for 6 years, and as someone who identifies as a born again Christian, here’s the question I get most often:  “But what about evangelicals and proselytizing? Can evangelicals be involved in interfaith work if their faith calls them to convert others?”

Here’s the short answer: Yes.

My long answer on the why and how:

Evangelicals must be involved in interfaith initiatives. Evangelicals can be a HUGE resource and value added to your interfaith work on campuses and in your community. At the Interfaith Youth Core, where I work, we have a pretty big audacious mission: to make interfaith cooperation a social norm within a generation. And if we want to achieve that mission, we have to have evangelicals on board. They make up a sizeable amount of the population in this country and have profound influence in our culture. In my experience many evangelical folks will want to be involved in interfaith work but don’t feel like they are welcome – so it’s important to make it clear that evangelicals are wanted and needed at the table of interfaith cooperation.

Define what interfaith work is – and what it isn’t. Frankly, “interfaith” can be a scary word to anyone concerned that they might have to compromise their faith. 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. 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 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 homelessness 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. The service approach is what’s key here – many of my evangelical friends would be perfectly comfortable serving alongside folks of different religious and nonreligious traditions, but wouldn’t feel comfortable at an interfaith worship service where they felt like they couldn’t pray in the name of Jesus.

Affirm the importance of evangelizing. When talking with evangelical groups, affirm that evangelizing is a key component of their religious beliefs and practices (Mark 16:15). Evangelizing, however, is only one way that religious traditions teach their followers how to interact with others. When you engage in interfaith action and service, this is an opportunity to engage another part of your religious identity – like feeding the hungry – which I believe as Christians we have a very clear biblical mandate to do (Matthew 25: 35-40). Evangelical Christian religious practice is more dynamic than simply trying to convert others.

Make it clear that interfaith work isn’t the place for proselytizing. There are many places where proselytizing is appropriate, but interfaith work is not one of them. Being involved in interfaith service is bringing people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together to be partners in making the world a better place.  In this setting, proselytizing may get in the way of allowing cooperation to happen because people may feel as though their existing identity is not being respected or even heard.

Emphasize opportunities interfaith work gives to share your tradition. When I talk with my evangelical friends about getting involved in interfaith work, I emphasize that just because you aren’t proselytizing doesn’t mean that you aren’t sharing your faith. Interfaith work does provide the opportunity for people to live out the core tenants of their religious or nonreligious values and empowers them to speak openly about how their religious or philosophical convictions motivate their life. For some, this is also a form of bearing witness. For example, in doing interfaith work I’ve had the opportunity to talk about Jesus and how my faith inspires me to countless non-Christians on a daily basis.

To my evangelical friends – it can be challenging for to suspend evangelism when interacting with someone who is not Christian, I but assure you the payoff is worth it.  You are an important and needed voice at the table of interfaith cooperation.

To my non-evangelical friends and colleagues in the interfaith movement – I understand it can be hard sometimes to trust folks in the evangelical community, but I assure you the payoff is worth it.  I encourage you to reach out to evangelical communities and engage them in interfaith cooperation.

Re-Launching Faith Line Protestants

We are excited today to announce the re-launch of Faith Line Protestants. After falling victim to busy schedules and demanding academic curricula, the conversation which formally began two and a half years ago is restarting with renewed enthusiasm.

While Cameron Nations and Greg Damhorst will continue to contribute, they will be joined by three new regulars offering perspectives and opinions on living Christian in a religiously diverse world, engaging people of other faith traditions, and understanding the role that evangelism plays in following Jesus in 21st century America.

Our new contributors are:

  • Amber Hacker, Alumni Relations Coordinator at Interfaith Youth Core
  • Ann Marie Roderick, Masters in Divinity candidate at Union Theological Seminary in New York City
  • Rachael McNeil, Interfaith Coordinator at the University of North Florida

We hope you will be enriched by the diversity of experience and perspective, yet common vision of the contributors.

As always, we welcome your active participation in this discussion. All posts will be open for comments and we offer a standing invitation to guests wishing to contribute and article for this site (simply contact us at mail ‘at’ faithlineprotestants.org).

So, without further ado, enjoy the discussion!

– The Faith Line Protestants Team

 

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