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.

The Christian and Muslim divide

Here’s one of those things I was referring to: a thought-provoking discussion between Gabe Lyons of Q Ideas and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”

http://www.qideas.org/video/the-christian-and-muslim-divide.aspx

I really resonate with Gabe’s description of the potential of interfaith relationships the precedes the interview. Definitely worth a listen…

Taking the discussion up a notch

We’re going to give something new a try on Faith Line Protestants starting today, and if you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about. We’re calling it “Thoughts and Links.”

Cameron and I realized that there is an incredible number of things we encounter on a day-to-day basis that we’d like to share with our readers – but we simply don’t have the time to always write a full-fledged blog entry to tell you about them. Hence our new addition to FLP. We hope to share quick stories, thoughts, photos, links, etc. much more regularly with our readers through this new platform.

But don’t worry! Our featured posts (complete with corny stock photography) that you’ve come to know and love will still keep showing up, but we’ll keep things a little more frequent with “Thoughts and Links. ”

To get things started, I’ll try to dig up some of that stuff that has been distracting me from studying for exams for the past few weeks to share with you all…

Best,

Greg

5 types of Christians: The culture warriors (part 2 of 6)

This article is part 2 in a series inspired by Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians. As I read this book, I felt like Lyons’ insight was particularly relevant to our discussion of evangelical involvement in the interfaith movement. Be sure to check out The Next Christians and check back here for part 3 of this series!

The Culture Warriors

Do you remember what Nicholas Kristof had to say about evangelicals in the wake of Rev. John Stott’s death? Kristof demonstrated an incredible sense of insight as he compared and contrasted the compassionate, gentle work of Stott’s ministry with the blowhards of the Christian Right like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

To me, Falwell and Robertson epitomize the culture warriors.

Gabe Lyons gives another example – the protestors who fought to retain “Roy’s Rock,” a monument of the Ten Commandments that met controversy outside of an Alabama courthouse several years ago. He explains in Next Christians:

“Culture warriors, many of whom are sincere and well-intentioned, simply don’t know how else to promote the ideals of their faith in the public square. Yet they are often unaware of how their tactics are perceived by others. This view motivates many of them—like the Roy’s Rock angry supporters—to ensure that societal values and cultural artifacts reflect Christian beliefs. Even when society no longer behaves, thinks, or seeks the Christian God.”

As I am reminded of the rhetoric of such an approach to “living Christian in a religiously diverse world” (as our tagline reads), and am often concerned by what I hear (remember the Falwell-Robertson explanation for 9/11)?” I pray that the next generation of conservative leaders can find another way, as Gabe Lyons’ puts it, “to promote the ideals of their faith in the public square” (although we’ve had a few scares).

Not surprisingly, when it comes to the interfaith movement, the culture warriors seem more interested in debate than dialogue. But when you consider the goals of evangelicals — to communicate the message of the Christian faith — does it communicate the message of the Kingdom of God to blame the suffering for their pain or to refuse to acknowledge other traditions and worldviews in the public square?

A good example of where this attitude hits home can be found in the various mosque controversies that have sprung up around the country over the past year. When it comes to the way that the Christian community behaves toward communities of other faiths, is it more loving to vehemently oppose our neighbors, or to welcome them? It seems that the culture warrior mentality says making a welcoming gesture is not the Christian thing to do. But which response better reflects the attitude of Jesus?

As Cameron and I have attempted to describe numerous times on this site, it is possible to show kindness to people of other faiths without compromising one’s own beliefs. To the culture warrior, however, kindness seems out of the question – and that’s why interfaith relationships won’t mesh.

My hope is that the culture warriors aren’t the image by which the general public stereotypes the evangelical Christian tradition. After all, here’s one follower of Jesus who is willing to trade a granite monument for relationships – because relationships are how I get to show others what my faith is really about.

Articles in this series:
Part 1: The insiders
Part 2: The culture warriors
Part 3: The evangelizers
Part 4: The blenders
Part 5: The philanthropists
Part 6: Restorers

5 types of Christians: The insiders (part 1 of 6)

This article is part 1 in a series inspired by Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians. As I read this book, I felt like Lyons’ insight was particularly relevant to our discussion of evangelical involvement in the interfaith movement. Be sure to check out The Next Christians and check back here for part 2 of this series!

Click on photo for credits

 

I’ve never found it sufficient to simply state that I’m a Christian when meeting someone new. Inevitably, saying so always leads to a question of brand or persuasion that, more often than not, seems to be accompanied with an assessment by my new acquaintance. People draw many conclusions from one’s denominational affiliation, and in the case of meeting other Christians, they want to know whether you are “one of theirs” or not. After all, we’ve all met that Christian who we just can’t quite stand to be around, right?

The sociology of Christianity fascinates me, and the only thing preventing me from writing a doctoral thesis on the subject is a lack of calling (and the fact that I’m currently training as an engineer and a physician, so don’t get your hopes up). The way that Christian doctrine has manifested itself in Christian living varies so greatly from person-to-person that it’s mind-blowing – something Gabe Lyons recognizes during a consulting gig with a film producer described in his book, Next Christians.

Despite the complexity of it all, Lyons provides a brilliant assessment of Christians in America that will enlighten our discussion on evangelicalism and the interfaith movement, and I’d like to jump right in.

Lyons describes two major types of American Christian, each followed by more specific sub-types: “separatist” (including “insiders,” “culture warriors” and “evangelizers”) and “culturalist” (including “blenders” and “philanthropists”). I’ll unpack each of these as we discuss this analysis in light of the interfaith movement. I’ll begin with the label that best describes my childhood: the insiders.

The Insiders

In general, I grew up an insider. My favorite time of the week was Sunday night youth group, with Wednesday night dinners at church coming in a close second. My friends were almost entirely from the church crowd – and in a small congregation like ours, that meant I hung out with the kids from the five or six families I saw every Sunday morning.

My first CD purchase was a Jars of Clay album, and for a while I owned nearly all of the Steven Curtis Chapman albums (or at least the ones that had been released since I was born…). I had the WWJD? wristband, the cheesy Christian slogan t-shirt, and a set of home-made Bible verse magnets I had created on the computer. Sounding familiar to anyone?

As an insider, I lacked a sense of the religious diversity around me. When I thought of the brown-skinned guy in my reading class, I thought that being Arab and Muslim were the same thing. When the Thai girl in my homeroom was teased for being Buddhist, I didn’t even think of speaking up.

As an insider, I didn’t care about my classmate’s beliefs and traditions. To me, the only real world was the world of the church. I still can’t remember how I conceptualized a lifestyle centered on a different god, or, for that matter, the absence of one. It didn’t matter to me, almost as if those people didn’t have any real depth – as if they lacked real values. And although I was involved in community service throughout high school, the “why?” discussion about the motivation behind the action didn’t matter to me. I didn’t realize that others might cite reasons to serve that were different from my own.

It is incredible to see how my lifestyle – and my faith – has changed from being an insider. From eagerly awaiting each day spent at church (Wednesdays and Sundays) as an elementary school kid to finding excuses to skip campus fellowship meetings in college because I was increasingly irritated with the lack of interest in what was happening outside of our doors – people in need of restoration, relationships we were called – as Christians, as “restorers” – to build (a major theme in Next Christians).

It was when I came across interfaith dialogue that I realized there was so much more to people than what I observed from within my cultural “bubble.” It was also when I learned that Jesus called me to sacrificial service that I began to care why others were driven to serve as well.

Yet I still encounter the insiders. And the lack of interest in interfaith cooperation is all too familiar. It makes me wonder if the bubble which makes us comfortable on the inside is also keeping the “outsiders” out.

Articles in this series:
Part 1: The insiders
Part 2: The culture warriors
Part 3: The evangelizers
Part 4: The blenders
Part 5: The philanthropists
Part 6: Restorers

Communicating True Christianity

Sarah Stef is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Sarah has taken a unique approach to presenting her faith on campus and we were quite impressed with her desire to communicate the truth about Christianity without making assumptions or placing judgment. We thought that Faith Line Protestants readers would enjoy hearing about why and how she has created this workshop. We hope Sarah gets even more support on campus for her great work!

At the end of my junior year at the University of Illinois, I began to contemplate what my last semester of college would look like (since I am student teaching in the spring, I have to pack all my senior experiences into half the time). What would my goals be? How would I accomplish them? More importantly, have I made a difference in my time at the university? I struggled with these questions and more as I tried to plan the blank expanse that is my future.

In a meeting with several other leaders of the Christian ministry that I attend, I took to heart a comment that seemed to outline a need on our campus: Why can’t we create an environment in which we present our faith without making any assumptions about our audience’s faith, prior knowledge, or intentions? Even the most basic Bible study usually assumes that the members have a Bible at home that they can read between meetings. I got excited, because I felt that I had found my purpose for my last semester—I would organize some sort of weekly workshop that could outline Christianity for anyone who was interested, regardless of religious belief. In fact, I encouraged people to invite their non-Christian friends, because it would be most beneficial to those who may not have heard some of it before.

Wait, let me back up… what do I mean by “it” in that last sentence? Well, having grown up in the church my head is packed full of all these random facts about Christianity; what it is, and what the implications are. My weekly workshop is a semi-successful attempt at organizing basic biblical doctrine into different topical explorations of meaning. But I didn’t stop there! Since I wanted to design this workshop to be beneficial to people who may not know very much about what Christians believe in, I decided to add another layer into my discussions—how can I address common questions and misconceptions that people have about the Christian faith?

We all hate clichés and stereotypes for the same reason—because we don’t like to be misrepresented. Christians aren’t any different. It bothers me that the image of Christianity presented by the media, and a few small fringe groups with loud voices, is a garbled caricature of what Christianity really is. A lot of people are put off by Christianity because what they see is only a distortion, and so I am using my workshop to try to clear up those confusions. This is why I named my workshop True Christianity, because there are so many false Christian ideas out there.

Right now I am at the halfway point in my workshop series, and what surprised me was the response to it. My expectations were that Christians would use it as a way to invite their non-Christian friends into non-judgmental discussions about Christian beliefs. It was very disheartening when I finally realized that my Christian friends had little interest in the workshop, probably because they didn’t think it would be useful to them (which is not necessarily true, I myself have learned a lot through my research for this workshop). But on the flip side, I’ve been getting a lot of positive interest from the non-Christian community itself. People actually want to learn about Christianity! Several groups on campus have supported my work, recognizing the need for educating people about Christianity. I think it’s been awesome how my workshop has allowed me to connect with people on campus with common goals that I would not otherwise have had a chance to work with.

As the end of my workshop approaches, I am once again faced with contemplating the future—what do I want to do with everything I’ve learned and done through this experience? I hate the idea that this was just a one-time deal, and will soon be nothing more than a memory. In fact, I refuse to leave it that way, because the need for this workshop will not end when I leave. That’s why I’ve put all of my notes on my website, truechristianityuiuc.weebly.com, because I want everyone to have access to the information regardless of whether or not they have attended my workshops. Besides, I think this small workshop is something that I would like to refine and re-implement wherever I end up in the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll write a book… someday. And wouldn’t it be really cool if some underclassman came up to me today and asked if they could keep the workshop running on campus after I’m gone…

About Sarah (from her website): My name is Sarah Stef.  I am a senior at the University of Illinois studying Math Secondary Education.  I hope that a year from now I will be teaching Middle School math somewhere in Indiana, although I’ll take whatever teaching job I can get.

I have been a Christian since I was a young child.  My parents, who fled Communism in Romania in order to worship God freely in America, have given me an appreciation for my faith that goes beyond Sundays.  I am passionately in love with God, and my walk with Him has led me to be involved with Axiom, a Christian campus ministry that loves to love God and love people by serving them.

I decided to create this workshop because it frustrates me that the world’s perception of Christianity is so false.  It is based on lies and misconceptions, and I would like to put the record straight.

Too exclusive to stay: one reason young Christians are leaving the church

The Barna group released an update yesterday with a preview of David Kinnaman’s (co-author of UnChristian with Gabe Lyons) new book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church. The update suggests six major themes, at least one of which is of interest to our discussion on Faith Line Protestants.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%). (http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church).

As America’s religious diversity grows, so does the potential for tension between an exclusive faith tradition and the people of other traditions (including no tradition at all). Contrary to popular belief, the reality of that tension does not seem to come solely from the fact that Christianity identifies Jesus Christ as the only way to God, but from the broader Christian community’s failure to see how these truth claims – and the call to share those claims with others – will play out in relationships with others.

Click on photo for credits

For example, my evangelical upbringing rarely emphasized the importance of caring for any aspect of my atheist friends’ lives other than their salvation. Nor did I receive any guidance on how to build friendships with Muslims in a way that opened doors instead of closing them. What this does – whether intentionally or not – is it creates a mentality of “us versus them”: Christians are worthy of our fellowship, and the only concern I should have with the others is in converting them.

This may be what gives rise to the opinions that Barna has uncovered in their latest project.

So how do we change this? If young Christians are so unprepared to handle their faith in a diverse world that they must choose between making friends with non-Christians or staying committed to their faith, then something is wrong. There is a failure to look at the life of Jesus while asking: how would Jesus engage a religiously diverse world?

What the church needs in this arena is to start a conversation within its own congregations to ponder this question. We need to explore the possibility of maintaining exclusive truth claims while building positive relationships with our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and non-religious neighbors. We need to teach young people to have a conversation about faith that doesn’t infallibly induce an awkward discomfort in one or both of the parties involved, yet doesn’t gloss over differences to create a watered-down dialogue, either. We need to start thinking about how interfaith cooperation might actually enhance our ability to communicate the message of our faith instead of hinder it.

If we look at the life of Christ and we ask about how Christians should respond in the wake of religious bigotry, in the presence of human need, or in the tenderness of a relationship, we will find that “love your neighbor” has even more to teach us. Then our young people will discover as well that friendship is something that takes place because of Jesus, not in spite of Him.

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…