Tag Archives: Evangelism

A spiritual calling to interfaith work

This piece was originally published on the Interfaith Youth Core blog at http://www.ifyc.org/content/spiritual-calling-interfaith-work.

Last Thursday night I found myself at the largest interfaith dialogue the University of Illinois has ever seen. Directly north of the iconic Assembly Hall and Memorial Stadium on campus, 600 people packed into a multipurpose room at our beautiful Activities and Recreation Center – the same room where we’ll kick off the Illinois Conference on Interfaith Collaboration in just under a month.

The event, a Muslim-Christian dialogue between academics Zeki Saritoprak and Peter Kreeft, was well-attended by people from many traditions, but I’m willing to bet that just about every Christian fellowship on campus was represented. So while I stood in the back waiting to meet some friends from Interfaith in Action, the relatively high density of Cru, InterVarsity (IV) and Navigators shirts inspired some reflection.

As a Christian, I value the sort of community that a Christian fellowship provides. However, I also value the opportunity to share the message of my faith with others. In reflecting, I thought back to my days as a Bible study leader with IV – my struggle to balance over-commitment to academics and extracurricular activities and an evangelism seminar my junior year that convicted me not to renew my time-consuming commitments to leadership with IV.

Why? Because the take-home message of the seminar was simple: stop doing so many things with just Christians and start doing things with people from a different background. It’s through those relationships that you will show others who Jesus is.

That seminar confirmed my spiritual calling to interfaith work.

I thought about where I have come since then. One year after that retreat, I attended an IFYC conference at Northwestern University. Six months later, we organized more than 5,000 people in packaging 1,000,000 meals for earthquake victims in Haiti, Champaign-Urbana’s largest ever interfaith service project. Six months after that, I found myself in front of the White House with 200 other student leaders at the first ever Interfaith Leadership Institute.

As a student speaker in the opening session of that ILI, I remember the excitement of telling my parents – both of whom are Christians and great supporters of my involvement in interfaith work – about how I knew that I had heard God’s call correctly: I had been given the opportunity to go to the White House to tell 200 hundred other students about the ways that Jesus inspires me to serve others.

But I realize now that the real indicators of God’s desire come in less obvious, but more meaningful forms. Like those of the friends I was meeting at that dialogue last Thursday night.

They are people like Adam, an atheist and an inspiring leader with whom I get to work closely on a regular basis. Or Gautam, an old friend from my hometown with Jain and Hindu heritage – and now a colleague in interfaith work on our campus. Or Adham, an American Muslim of Syrian descent who is one of the University of Illinois’ emerging young interfaith leaders. But that’s just a few – there are innumerable others who I have met through interfaith work – some in just short conversations, others as collaborators and friends in long-term projects.

What I realized while waiting in the back of that multipurpose room last Thursday night was that these relationships are the real reason I know my spiritual calling to do interfaith work is true. Because I’m doing something that I wasn’t doing before, something that my faith was instructing me to do all along – I’m building inspiring relationships with people of different backgrounds.

Relationships like this are built at events like the IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institutes, which are this summer in Chicago (June 18-21, 2012) and Philadelphia (July 16-19). Also, consider joining us at the University of Illinois April 20th-22nd for the inaugural Illinois Conference on Interfaith Cooperation. We have some special guests including Eboo PatelJim WallisChris Stedman and Valarie Kaur.

And you might even get to meet Adam, Gautam or Adham…

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5 types of Christians: The blenders (part 4 of 6)

A different kind of blender

This article is part 4 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 5 of this series!

So far, I’ve discussed “types” of Christians that Gabe Lyons calls “separatists.” My next two entries, including this one, will address two “types” that Lyons labels as “culturalists.”

The first of those types is the “blenders.” These might be the folks you know as “cultural Christians” or “nominal Christians.” They go to church on Sunday, but the rest of the week faith doesn’t seem to matter – there is little evidence of the characteristics that distinguish a Christ-follower from the rest of culture. Here is what Gabe Lyons has to say in Next Christians:

“This group best reflects the next generation’s values. Their lives mirror much of what everyone else is doing with little delineation between how they behave or what they believe. They are not all that interested in taking public stands for their convictions or faith: they think that’s what the ‘crazy Christians’ (the Separatists) do. Blenders have one concern: being like everyone else. They’ve seen how Christians who wear their faith on their sleeves have been alienated from the ‘in’ crowd. They have no desire to go down that path. As far as they are concerned, serious discussion about religion is a taboo topic – off-limits for casual conversation.”

While I’m not interested in judging the authenticity of a blender’s faith in this space, I would like to discuss the ramifications of the blender approach to Christianity as it pertains to the interfaith movement.

It is certainly possible that the blender would take an interest in the interfaith movement, as the prospects of interfaith cooperation as a social norm can be both apparent and compelling with just a superficial introduction (interfaith dialogue can provide a way of talking about faith that mitigates the taboo status that Lyons mentions above). As the blender enters the space of interfaith dialogue, however, the distinguishing qualities on which we rely to communicate the gospel may not be present.

What characterizes blenders is that faith doesn’t inform or transform the majority of what they do. If it did, their actions and aspirations would contrast with the rest of the world in some notable way – thus they would no longer be blenders. When these folks enter into interfaith dialogue, however, they still introduce themselves as Christians all the same.

Now, some have expressed concern over this scenario – especially various separatist type Christians – and some have even cited this as a barrier to their participation in interfaith cooperation. It is important to realize, however, that this has not been a concern in my experience with interfaith dialogue. I have found it frequently stressed that assumptions should never be made about one person representing a specific faith tradition in its entirety and that one person’s faith experience is necessarily the same as that of another person from the same tradition. Although impressions may be formed, they can be re-shaped by encounters with individuals who live out their faith more genuinely.

But the point that I’d like to stress about blender Christians in interfaith dialogue is that they lack the qualities which enable other Christians to communicate the gospel in such a unique way. Here on Faith Line Protestants, we often highlight the opportunity that interfaith dialogue provides to communicate our faith through relationships. While this often starts in interfaith dialogue, it continues in the relationships that interfaith dialogue can initiate, enable, and accelerate. But if blending into society is a higher priority than living under the influence of the radical example of Christ, what will be communicated in that relationship?

This is where the blender misses the opportunities that compel evangelicals toward interfaith work. The fascinating truth, however, is that interfaith dialogue can also be an opportunity for Jesus followers living with a profound understanding of God’s desire for restoration to communicate to other Christians – such as the blender – what is being missed.

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

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The evangelical tension and Scot McKnight on the gospel

The purpose of Faith Line Protestants is to talk about evangelicals and the interfaith movement. But that has led me to talking a lot about the gospel. Why? Because the tension between Christians and people of other religious and non-religious traditions almost always lies in (a) the message that is being communicated and (b) how that message is being communicated.

This observation has led me to ask the questions (several times, in fact): (a) what is the message that evangelicals are communicating? and (b) what’s the best way to communicate that message?

I become concerned when negative  interfaith tension comes from the evangelical’s emphasis on personal salvation (i.e. the “heaven or hell?” focus) and fails to tell the whole story of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. When this is the case, the problem lies in both the (truncated) message and the method of communication.

Scot McKnight was recently interviewed on the Covenant Church website about his latest book The King Jesus Gospel and touches directly on some of the issues related to my thoughts above. Enjoy:

http://www.covchurch.org/news/2011/11/08/expanding-the-gospel-beyond-who%E2%80%99s-in-and-who%E2%80%99s-out/

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5 types of Christians: The evangelizers (part 3 of 6)

This article is part 3 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 4 of this series!

Please read my short narrative “The Good Test” before reading this post, where I describe my encounter with a man on the University of Illinois campus (“Kevin”) who was proselytizing on our main quad. Talking to Kevin was revealing of the barriers that not only kept him from being interested in interfaith work, but that made him opposed to it. I’d like to share my own perspective on Kevin’s approach to evangelism.

I believe that Kevin had the greatest of intentions to share the good news of the Christian faith. But something about Kevin’s approach shuts the door nearly as quickly as it is opened. And I hope that my conversation with Kevin has shed light on the reason for that. I also believe that Kevin is what Gabe Lyons calls an evangelizer (the third type of Christian we’ve discussed so far in this Next Christians-inspired series).

In Next Christians, Gabe Lyons describes Bill, a man who evangelizes to his neighbors by handing out Gospel tracts to trick-or-treating children on Halloween, which upsets their parents. Lyons explains:

“Bill is an evangelizer, and to be fair, he thought he was doing what was best. Driven by a desire to spread the ‘good news,’ he felt compelled to use any method possible. Thinking he was building bridges, he had actually accomplished the opposite. His plan to show love to his neighbors had backfired.”

I think that Kevin’s approach backfires too, although perhaps in a different way. His failure to make meaningful, genuine connections with other people denies him the opportunity to communicate the big picture of the faith – an it turns off many with whom he does have the chance to talk.

He was also caught up in the perception others held of him, seemingly to overlooking that fact that Jesus ate with tax collectors (Mark 2:13-17) while the religious leaders (Pharisees) whispered about him in the background. Kevin may have forgotten also how Jesus healed on the Sabbath without concern for the Pharisees’ judgment  (Matthew 12:1-14).

Where some might have stopped for fear of being perceived incorrectly, Jesus proceeded brilliantly, always communicating the Gospel of the Kingdom of God: that Jesus offers restoration, and that his followers are called to restore and be restored.

This is what the evangelizer is missing. His or her message is only about hell and the decision that can save you from it. But the gospel is about the restoration of the individual (yes, from sin and the punishment of hell to life to the full) as well as the restoration of the whole world. This is what Jesus demonstrated in his healing and relationships. This is what the Pharisees never understood. But this is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

The evangelizers that Lyons describes don’t fit into the interfaith movement because the movement doesn’t mesh with the techniques people like Kevin employ to communicate the gospel. But the gospel message will be told when we as Christians take our place in the Kingdom of God narrative: a narrative of restoration – the child suffering from malnutrition, the community destroyed by an earthquake, the sinner in need of forgiveness.

Remember how Jesus communicated the message? Service, storytelling, and relationships.

And if you ask my friend Adam (mentioned in my last post), I bet he’d tell you which approach is more effective at communicating the message. If I’m wrong, I guess I better get my business card updated…

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

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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

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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

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On the Air: An interview on Keepin’ the Faith

A few weeks ago I was privileged to interview as a guest on the WILL AM 580 (local public radio) show Keepin’ the Faith about interfaith work on the University of Illinois campus with my friend Ish Umer. Don Nolen, who guest-hosted that evening, led us into a discussion of evangelicals and interfaith work that I thought you might enjoy. You can download the podcast from will.illinois.edu at the following link: http://will.illinois.edu/keepinthefaith/show/ktf110807/

I’ve listed a few landmarks so you don’t have to listen to the whole program if your schedule doesn’t allow the time:

0:00 – About the Illinois Interfaith Service Challenge

20:18 – Ish’s description of his religious background and his experience around 9/11

25:48 – Greg’s description of his religious background

29:10 – Addressing sensitive issues in interfaith dialogue

36:50 – Evangelism and interfaith dialogue

47:36 – Guest caller with question for Ish

50:00 – Interfaith work on campus: One Million Meals for Haiti, and continued discussion of the Interfaith Service Challenge.

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The end of Christian America?

Something is being whispered about in daring conversations around the country. You may have heard it mentioned in editorials, on the covers of magazines, and in blogs. It seems that the evidence is there, although it hasn’t necessarily been aggregated and analyzed. If it wasn’t for my own personal experiences, I might have tried to deny it too, but there’s something about it that resonates strangely, like a poorly-articulated pop song to which you finally were able to decipher all the words.

The church is losing its influence in society.

But is it really a bad thing? Gabe Lyons, founder of Q Ideas and co-author of the bestselling UnChristian, speaks explicitly to this reality in his new book Next Christians. I’m going to use this text, as I have with other books in the past, to guide a discussion over the next several weeks.

Lyons paints a symbolically rich picture in his opening chapter of a visit he paid to the legendary evangelist Billy Graham at Graham’s home in the winding roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the two chatted while reclining in rocking chairs on the back porch and enjoyed warm cookies from the oven, Lyons finds Graham in a place of rest, comfort, and solitude – Graham’s work, though both tremendous and inspiring, is over.

A fitting scene to set the stage for a book subtitled: The Good News about the End of Christian America.

Lyons is on to something. If you read back through our archive of posts on Faith Line Protestants, you’ll be able to infer that Cameron and I sense that the “Billy Graham” method of evangelism is becoming, to some extent, culturally obsolete.

Let me clarify: I affirm the ministry of Billy Graham. I believe that Reverend Graham, like few people in his generation, responded wholly and obediently to the mission to which God had called him, and did so with tremendous success. But Billy Graham witnessed to a generation of Americans in stark contrast to the present generation.

In general, it seems that Graham spoke to a nominally-churched generation. These were people who may or may not have called themselves Christians, but perhaps recognized the Church as an authority and the Bible as a source of insight, giving traction to Graham’s stadium-revival and radio-show approach to communicating the gospel. The truth about my generation, however,  is that most are disenchanted with the Christian Church– a fact possibly most apparent on college campuses and in metropolitan areas.

Some may blame secularism, but it’s also largely because of pluralism. America is becoming increasingly diverse. Among my closest peers at the University of Illinois, the majority have been raised either in another faith tradition or in a non-religious household. The Church and its scriptures carry little or no influence, simply because of their upbringing.

So if we are called as Christians to communicate the message of the gospel, and we desire to be heard by the current generation of young adults (and perhaps their parents, but certainly their children), it will not suffice simply to hold stadium revivals, deliver inspiring sermons on the radio, and stage teary-eyed altar-calls.

To communicate the gospel, we have to live the gospel.

I’ll leave you with the words of Billy Graham as quoted by Gabe Lyons in Next Christians:

“Back when we did these big crusades in football stadiums and arenas, the Holy Spirit was really moving—and people were coming to Christ as we preached the Word of God.  But today, I sense something different is happening. I see evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in a new way.  He’s moving through people where they work and through one-on-one relationships to accomplish great things.  They are demonstrating God’s love to those around them, not just with words, but in deed.”

I have found that the interfaith movement cultivates these relationships. Don’t let the end of Christian America get you down; there are exciting times ahead.

During my next several entries, I’ll discuss Gabe Lyons’ analysis of Christian interaction with current culture, which provides insight on living Christian in a religiously diverse world and sets the stage for an understanding of what it means to live life seeking restoration through engaging those around us.

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