Tag Archives: Evangelism

Advent, Apocalypse, and Interfaith Cooperation?

As a seminary student, I have spent a lot of time in the classroom learning about the Bible. But this past Sunday I just preached for the first time at the main service of my Episcopal church in New York City, standing on a high-rise lectern in front of 150+ churchgoers. It didn’t make it any easier that this week was a pretty important one in the liturgical calendar—Sunday was the first day of the entire church year, and the first Sunday of Advent (the season that leads up to Christmas). The fascinating thing about the lectionary texts that kick off the New Year is that they are apocalyptic—they’re not about fresh starts or new beginnings; instead, they warn believers to prepare for judgment at the end of the world.

As I worked on my sermon, it struck me that the Second Coming of Christ is probably not a topic of many interfaith discussions. But why isn’t it? I started to realize that Christian anticipation of the Second Coming actually has a lot to do with building a future of interfaith cooperation.

The Second (or final) Coming is the idea that Jesus will return to earth at some unknown time to the finish the work he began over 2,000 years ago. While most mainline Christian denominations agree that Jesus will return, the exact nature of that return is heavily debated. Some churches emphasize their belief in the idea of a rapture in which the people of the world will be divided. These traditions hold that there will be war, fire, and severe suffering until Jesus arrives to establish the Kingdom of God with those who have remained faithful.

Other Christians envision a broken world that is miraculously revived through the return of Jesus, who is able to establish his Kingdom of love, peace, and justice for all people on earth.

In both cases, and in all the many beliefs not cited here, Christians are asked to bear witness to the possibility that the end of world, as we know it, is drawing near. This means that Christians are called to live in a way that continuously prepares for the return of Jesus. We have to ask ourselves, to what world do we want Jesus to return? What do we want the world to be like when our Savior arrives?

If you are part of a Christian tradition that observes the liturgical calendar, then you know that Advent is our main season for preparation—but Christians are called to prepare for the Coming of the Lord at all times, not just at appointed seasons. I want to prepare a world for Jesus in which Christians are kind neighbors to those of other religious traditions. I want to prepare a world in which there is an end to poverty, an end to bullying, and an end to greed. I want to prepare my own heart for Jesus by striving to spend more time in prayer than I do on social media, more time building community than I do complaining about how my communities aren’t strong enough.

How will you prepare for the Coming of Christ? In what kind of world do you want to meet Jesus?

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When doing the Christian thing isn’t the right thing

707084_12414975I used to be a Bible study leader.

And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

 

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campustown, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy which gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

 

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.

There is a certain logic among many Christians which says that it is necessary to proselytize on account of our tradition’s teaching that our truth is exclusive. Because our exclusive truth teaches us that the consequence is damnation for those who do not subscribe, we feel we must convince others of our truth. At all costs. At any length. Whatever it takes. To not do so, we reason, would be unloving.

I happen to agree – to a certain extent – with this logic. But I also happen to disagree with where this logic has led many Christians: to the notion that we must be aggressive, abrasive, disrespectful and judgmental.

I believe that the problem evangelicalism faces today is that we have forgotten the very example that we claim to follow. The example of a servant, preacher, and prophet who was a friend of those that religious leaders considered sinners and outcasts. In fact, Jesus seemed to value relationships over regulations and rituals, whether that relationship was with someone of a different tradition, someone society hated, or someone religious leaders considered immoral.

What we Christians fail to see is that the most important way to relate to a person who believes differently is not to convince them of how they are wrong, which we have tried with every method available—approaches which ironically seem to make our message even less convincing. What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).

But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader.

I credit two people with teaching me how to communicate the Gospel. One of them is a Christian living in the slums of Philadelphia, and the other is a Muslim.

So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.

And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.

And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there’s a good chance that you’ve convinced them all of something about the Gospel.

 

This piece originally appeared at Sojourners.

Image credit.

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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.

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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.

 

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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!

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Interfaith Dialogue and Youth Ministry

Photo by Rachael K. McNeal

Photo by Rachael K. McNeal

Growing up an Evangelical Christian I understood evangelism as a spiritual practice central and essential to my Christian identity. My experience with people of different religions was limited and in my few choice encounters with religious non-Christians, I am ashamed to say I saw them only as souls to save.

Though as a student at Flagler College I was a Religion major, minoring in youth ministry, it was not until my junior year of college that I was introduced to interfaith dialogue and to theologians such as Jacques Dupuis and Thomas Merton. I liked the idea, but wrestled with interfaith dialogue, questioning its relevance to Christian practice when the goal of such interactions was not conversion of the other.

Then I met Rabbi Mark.

Rabbi Mark Goldman, a Reform Rabbi and adjunct professor at Flagler, challenged his students to better understand their own faith by engaging in relationships with people of other faiths. To this day I admire his love of God and passion for people. His great ability to articulate his own faith and what it means for his life challenged me to better articulate my own.

Yet even in light of my relationship with Rabbi Mark, I continuously compartmentalized my two areas of study, rarely understanding one to be relevant to the other.

Then I took a class here at Princeton Theological Seminary called “Engaging Youth in Interfaith Leadership.” The class, co-led by IFYC’s Cassie Meyer and Eboo Patel and Seminary professor Kenda Dean, gave my fellow graduate students and me an opportunity to explore concepts of interfaith dialogue and how they are relevant for youth ministry.

Our class wrestled to understand how interfaith work is relevant for Christian faith and ministry. Many of us expressed that we understood interfaith work and dialogue as important but were unable to theologically articulate why. Instead we danced around the idea of interfaith dialogue with reasons having seemingly nothing to do with our Christian faith. Some in the class, including myself, had come to realize interfaith dialogue as fruitful and important, but had compartmentalized our interfaith relationships from our Christian faith and practice.

It was at this point that Eboo asked us, “What is it about Jesus that makes you want to do interfaith work?”

I then realized that for me Jesus had been the missing link between interfaith dialogue, Christian practice and youth ministry. Jesus tells us in Mark 2 that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. The kind of love to which Jesus calls me is a relational love. Christ’s love in the Gospels exemplifies love in God’s Kingdom. As Christians we are called to love as Christ loved.

The love of God accepts all people, embraces all people, and hopes for all people, including those of other faiths. Interfaith dialogue is essential to Christian practice because love and relationship is essential to Christian practice. When I made this connection, it was not difficult to make the next connection to youth ministry.

In Matthew 5:9 Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” Interfaith work gives young people an opportunity to be peacemakers in a very real and very practical way. Isn’t the role of Christian youth ministry to equip young people to understand their role as Children of God in the Kingdom of God?

I have come to understand that interfaith work in youth ministry enables young people to be paradigms of peace in a violent world while equipping them to be examples of God’s love and a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

This post was originally published on Interfaith Youth Core’s Blog on June 1, 2011

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The Selfishness of Salvation

N_Train_Enters_30th_Avenue_StationThis is a rant mostly relevant to my fellow Christians. Anyone else is welcome to come along for the ride though.

Recently, I saw a young man loudly shouting to the captive audience during the rush hour on the N train. Specifically, he was passionately pontificating on the certain damnation that awaited those who strayed from the Way of the one Jesus Christ, complete with the vivid imagery of fire and brimstone. But the reward if we choose wisely is an eternity with riches in heaven. Accustomed to any and all forms of absurdity, the mix of tired businessmen and women, several young Latina mothers an Orthodox Jewish man and an old Chinese woman with a pushcart of the wares she was vending, seemed rather unimpressed. Afterall, if you ride the subway in Queens, you’ve probably seen it all.

That’s when it struck me. I was quite familiar with the story, as I myself am an evangelical Christian, and remembering being sent to the streets of Portland in middle school to evangelize, complete with a small paper track that described the four-step path to salvation. Granted, our approach was much kinder than the hell and damnation talk we were witnessing this late spring afternoon, when the newly arrived humidity finds itself into the bowels of the city, and into the traincars struggling to air-condition the smell away.

But I was also struck with another thought, a new, perplexing, troubling, thought. Something about the reward of salvation made the whole thing feel a bit self-centered. Salvation was at the center of all Christian theology I was taught. The single most important thing in life was my status as “saved.” The only other thing that mattered was convincing more people to adopt said “saved” status.

While I still identify as an evangelical, my tendency to question has allowed me to grow theologically beyond some of the more common peripheral beliefs of the evangelical movement. It has given the opportunity to hear this language with fresh ears. Upon doing so, salvation-focused theology poses two issues to me.

The first issue dived into the very basis of our morality. As Christians we’re called to live a moral life. Without going into the much larger (and warranted) debate on the nature or morality, morality is most commonly seen as the way one should act to be a good, selfless person. Putting ethical standards above our own wants and needs. However, are we truly selfless in our actions if we are seeking a reward? If I help someone with no desire for a return, then we would assume that’s moral. But if I help someone because I believe next year they’ll give back to be tenfold? It sounds like an investment.

Here lies the challenge of spiritual investment: If we are are only being honest, faithful, loyal and humble for the payment of an eternal mansion in the sky, then are we really being “good people”? If we allow salvation to be our true motive in living moral lives, then I can’t see how we’re not self-serving in the process. Do good, or else.

Which brings me to the second issue, the else. Just as heaven makes a compelling incentive for upright living, hell sure sounds like a scary place. And we can work our way backwards. If my main reason for serving God and living righteously is out of fear of eternal damnation, then how authentic is my devotion?

This is a line of logic that you can take into very murky territory. Is there any good you could do worth risking of your salvation? Today, like everyday, 16,000 children will die of hunger-related causes. Would you risk your salvation to keep them alive? If God would punish you for taking such a risk, is a God worthy of worship? Would you embrace eternal damnation upon yourself to end all human suffering? These hypotheticals should challenge us to ask if we’re really selfless in our daily lives, or just following the rules for the rewards.

This isn’t an argument about how we should look at the concepts of heaven and hell. It’s about motivation. If we let go of whether or not we are saved, or other people are saved, and love as Jesus instructed, perhaps the rest can work itself out. Maybe if we focused on making sacrifice, actual sacrifice from our own comfort for the glory of God in selfless service, rather than shouting at crowd of commuters on the N train, people may actually take notice.

This piece originally appeared here in Huffington Post Religion.

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Paul’s example of interfaith dialogue

From our friend Nicholas Price at Relevant Magazine Online:

The reality is that, when it comes to interactions with people of other faith traditions, evangelicals have been standoffish at best and, at worst, hostile. Too often those few interactions with communities from other faith backgrounds dissolve into theological slugging matches in which each side seeks to point out the flaws of the other, with evangelicals entering the fray in the name of evangelism.

Read more at http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/generous-model-interfaith-engagement.

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