Tag Archives: Evangelism

John Stott and the Pharisees

John Stott was an evangelical leader, and one who bore the name well. His passing last week has spurred a number of blogs and articles reflecting on his work as a minister. Among these is an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof which I felt important to share with the FLP community.

Kristoff highlights the “distaste” often inspired by the title evangelical Christian, pointing to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as examples of the self-righteousness that has soured the evangelical name. On the other hand, Kristoff identifies Rev. Stott as gentle and intellectual, an evangelical who coupled his preaching of the gospel with compassionate acts and concern for the suffering. Furthermore, Kristoff recognizes this quality in “some of the bravest people you meet” at the “front lines” of major humanitarian efforts.

It seems what Kristoff is observing is an age-old pattern.

When Jesus walked the earth, as described in the New Testament (specifically the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), a similar polarity could be observed in the religious culture. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law practiced self-righteous piety; Jesus practiced love.

Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic, the Pharisees called it blasphemy. Jesus healed a shriveled hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees plotted to kill him. Jesus built relationships with “tax collectors and sinners,” the Pharisees questioned his actions.

The Pharisees fasted to demonstrate their piety, but never seemed to understand compassion. Caught up in their own self-righteousness, they were repeatedly looking to accuse Jesus and his followers of wrongdoing. Jesus even warned his followers of their teaching. But the difficulty of Phariseeism is that it was a subtle danger – they had become so obsessed with the religious Law that they missed identifying the one to whom the Law pointed.

Is this what Kristoff is observing in today’s society? It sounds familiar: the compassionate and the self-righteous. Jesus and the Pharisees. The Stotts and the Falwells?

Every time I encounter an evangelical who is compelled to “preach the message” through criticism, especially when that criticism elevates that “evangelical” in self-righteousness, I think back to the life of Christ: service, storytelling, and relationships. When Jesus used strong words – when Jesus was critical – it wasn’t to condemn the broken for their immorality. It was to confront the Pharisees about their self-righteousness (Matthew 3:7, Matthew 23:27).

This is important to our discussion at Faith Line Protestants. Phariseeism isn’t compatible with the interfaith movement. What is compatible is service through compassion, humility and relationships.

Jesus didn’t come to say that the 9/11 attacks were punishment for American’s immorality or that AIDS is God’s judgment on promiscuity. He came to grant forgiveness to the immoral, offer completeness to the promiscuous, and to provide freedom from sin. After all, it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.

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A practical guide for engaging evangelicals in interfaith work

In conversations at the Interfaith Youth Core’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington D.C. this week I encountered several interfaith leaders – both college students and staff – who struggle with engaging the evangelical communities on their campus.  I hope this will serve as a practical guide for interfaith leaders in similar situations.

I frequently encounter students, staff, and faculty involved in interfaith work who struggle to involve evangelical students in the interfaith movement. While there’s no hard and fast answer, here is a practical guide from an evangelical about evangelicals, hoping to bolster evangelical participation in the interfaith movement.

1. Set up a safe space

First, communicate the concept of interfaith cooperation. Diana Eck’s definition is particularly helpful here:

  • Respect for religious identity
  • Mutually inspiring relationships
  • Common action for the common good

The two major barriers to interfaith involvement for evangelicals are (1) a fear that it promotes theological pluralism or universalism and (2) the disinterest that results from a perceived lack of opportunities to convert others. Clear communication of the definition of interfaith cooperation will mitigate the former and inform the latter. Evangelicalism must be respected for the interfaith movement to be patent — even if it means tolerating some degree of proselytization. Proselytization, however, can only be tolerated in the interfaith movement if it respects the religious identity of those who are proselytized, thus requiring that the evangelical make a careful examination of their technique.

Proselytization that occurs in the setting of an interfaith dialogue is another conversation, and must be handled on a case-by-case basis.

2. Emphasize the invitation

When I think about the ministry of Christ, I recognize three prominent themes: storytelling (including parables and sermons), relationships (including those with ‘sinners’ and societal outcasts), and service. Similarly, the tenants of the interfaith movement are: storytelling, relationships, and service.

To me, an invitation to interfaith cooperation is an invitation to emulate Christ (which naturally appeals to my evangelical worldview). You might not be in a position to convince evangelicals on your campus of this idea, but you can make an invitation that will appeal to anyone with evangelical convictions. The interfaith movement is an invitation to talk about Christ (including the concept of salvation) and to demonstrate the compassion with which Christ engaged the world.

It’s also an opportunity to learn more about other religious and non-religious traditions, which even the most aggressive evangelicals should see as an opportunity to equip themselves with knowledge relevant to a mission to communicate the gospel to people of other faiths.

3. Let other evangelicals help

The Christian gospel can be communicated in the interfaith movement. A discussion of sin and salvation is probable. An invitation to explore the idea of a personal relationship with God is possible – but there is a learned approach through the interfaith experience and an argument about the limitations of evangelical strategy that often must necessarily take place.

Non-evangelicals cannot easily have that argument with evangelicals, but other evangelicals can. This is the mission of Faith Line Protestants, so you are invited to point to us as a resource in your efforts to engage evangelicals on your campus.

Cameron and I are available for lectures, seminars, and discussions. Feel free to contact us through the contact page on this site — and good luck!

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When the Interfaith Movement and the Kingdom Intersect

Appearing Monday in the online edition of USA Today was an opinion article titled “Can cause of social justice tame our culture wars?” which carries certain significance in our discussion here at Faith Line Protestants regarding being an evangelical in a religiously diverse world.

The article, which highlights Scott Todd’s “58:” project and mentions Q Ideasa forum for Christian leaders to explore the call to create a better world – and Q founder Gabe Lyons (author of “The Next Christians”) who describes a new generation of Christians who have found the Bible’s call to serve others to hold significant relevance in their lives today.

“These are, after all, the people who accept responsibility to right seemingly every global wrong you can name while restoring the credibility of publicly expressed Christianity in the process. But the workload is exhausting only when they lose connection with their ultimate power source…”

So we’re not talking the Saturday afternoon all-church workday sort of service at which most congregations seem to excel.  We’re talking about defending the oppressed, fighting poverty, and addressing other global problems.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

Isaiah 58:6-7

What’s more –as Lyons says – this is the activation of a network of “restorers who will work with anyone to see goodness go forward in the world and evil pressed back.”  That’s right: anyone.  After all, where is the commandment in our faith to only feed the hungry or defend the helpless if we’re only doing it with other Christians?  It reminds me of the essence of the interfaith movement.

It seems that Lyons has captured the realization that, for practical purposes, we must be willing – even eager – to work with both the nonreligious as well as people of other faith traditions.  Perhaps he has also realized that serving together has even greater potential than just maximizing the impact of our physical work (as we’ve discussed many times here on Faith Line Protestants).

Working together for common goals fosters relationships, promotes conversation, and provides us as evangelicals with the opportunity to communicate the message that Jesus was preaching – the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  If that’s going to tame our culture wars… well, I can live with that.

 

Look for more discussion of Gabe Lyons’ book “Next Christians” here in the coming months and an understanding of how Lyons’ discussion of being Christian in a post-Christian world intersects with our discussion here at FLP.

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Unfavorable Opinions

This piece was originally posted by Faith Line Protestants co-founder Greg Damhorst on the Interfaith Youth Core blog at http://www.ifyc.org/content/unfavorable-opinions.

Yesterday the Pew Forum released a Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders that caught my attention. I was first intrigued by a headline that read: “Evangelical Leaders see Secularism as Greater Threat than Islam,” but as I read on, I realized there was something even deeper.

I am constantly intrigued with the interaction of evangelicals and people of other faith traditions, including those from non-religious traditions. Especially in the interfaith movement – a movement that seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm – I am fascinated by the role the evangelical tradition will play.

The Pew Forum has given the world a subtle glimpse of why I feel this way:

“On the whole, the evangelical Protestant leaders express favorable opinions of adherents of other faiths in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But of those who express an opinion, solid majorities express unfavorable views of Buddhists (65%), Hindus (65%), Muslims (67%) and atheists (70%). Interestingly, the leaders who live in Muslim-majority countries generally are more positive in their assessments of Muslims than are the evangelical leaders overall.”

Survey results from Pew Forum Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders

These statistics represent views held by 2,196 evangelical leaders toward faith communities. But when I look at these numbers, I don’t see communities – I see faces.

65% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Buddhists and 65% have an unfavorable view of Hindus, but when I think of those traditions I remember the Buddhist and the Hindu who I worked with to start a project to provide relief to earthquake survivors in Haiti last year.

67% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Muslims, but I can’t ignore the Avicenna Community Health Center, which reaches out to the uninsured in my community alongside religious and non-religious folks who are passionate about bringing health to those who can’t access care.

And while the 70% of evangelicals who view atheists unfavorably can likely blame the anti-religious rhetoric of a few individuals, I can’t help but look at the non-religious in a different light because of my relationships with people like Chris Stedman, Adam Garner, and Chelsea Link (the latter two have joined me in the new class of Better Together coaches this year!)

I’m willing to bet that these unfavorable views do nothing to enhance the evangelistic efforts of my fellow Christians – that they only hinder our ability to genuinely communicate the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I’m willing to bet that those who hold these unfavorable views don’t have meaningful relationships with people from other faith backgrounds.

When I look at the example that Jesus set – the example I work hard to emulate – I see relationships. In fact, they were often relationships with the people whom pious folks viewed unfavorably.

It is significant that evangelical leaders in Muslim-majority countries are more positive about Muslims than the worldwide trend. In my opinion, it’s probably because those evangelical leaders actually have Muslim friends.

It’s time for the evangelical community to stop being afraid of perceived threats to our faith and to start engaging with the world in a positive way. Relationships are the key to changing our perspectives. My prayer is that we all would understand the power they contain.

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What Does It Mean To Be Evangelical?: Defining Terms, Understanding Identities Pt II

Seemingly everyone is middle class. Ask someone who makes $75,000 a year and someone who makes double that amount, and both will tell you they’re “middle class.” And, it seems, even millionaires in the US claim to be middle class, as this 2007 survey indicates (I’d like to see what people would say now, in a post-recession economy). So who is right? What defines “middle class”?

Based upon data collected in surveys like the one above, “middle class” has come more to define a mentality than a dollar amount. If you feel middle class and act middle class, then you are, regardless of income, considered middle class—it has become a kind of sensibility. Does a similar notion also apply to evangelicals?

I think so.

I feel that, in some way, all Christians are evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, progressive or conservative, like it or not. We can’t escape the fact that evangelism is encoded within the DNA of the Christian faith, regardless of difference in denominational belief. Yet the definitions of the word that float through society don’t always accommodate this diversity.

As I see it, there are two easily identifiable definitions of the word “evangelical,” and one that is much harder to pin down: the first easily recognizable definition is used predominantly within the church community and the other is used predominantly outside of it. We will address the third one in a moment.

The first definition aligns rather closely with the one given in the OED, and stresses biblical inerrancy, salvation by faith alone, etc.

The second definition uses “evangelical” in a broad and often ambiguous way to describe basically any protestant who professes to be a Christian.

One can see this second definition come through in the recent flurry of activity surrounding Harold Camping’s rapture predictions. Multiple media outlets (here are just two examples: one, two) have referred either to Camping himself or/and to his media organization as “evangelical,” and I’ve heard it tossed around regularly in conversation that it’s those “evangelicals” who are at it again predicting the end of the world. And in some way, I can see where this assumption/association comes from: was it not the evangelicals who ate up the Left Behind series? Did not Camping’s followers harness evangelistic tactics to get their message out? Do they not conform to the OED’s definition? Are we not at least broadly discussing the same group of people?

Yet most evangelicals thought Camping was (and is) a loon. Even Tim LaHaye, the author of the  Left Behind series and prominent avowed evangelical, denounced Camping’s predictions as ridiculous.

I think you can see the difficultly here. If the word currently holds two meanings, but neither is stringently adhered to, then the word only leads to confusion and mis-categorization. I, for one, have quite a lot of Christian friends who might deem themselves “evangelical” in some sense of the word, but certainly don’t want to find themselves roped into Camping’s gang… or even Tim LaHaye’s gang.

This is where we find a third definition lurking in the background of this discussion. I represent that third definition. I am inclined to think of myself as an evangelical by virtue of the fact that I place importance on both sharing and living the Gospel, I believe in the transforming power of my faith, and I make no effort to hide my faith from others—I am, if you will, more than publicly Christian. I have many friends who would say the same for themselves; however, none of us would ever want to draw an association between us and the oft-stereotyped “evangelical” that demands donations on TV or hearkens back to the days of the Moral Majority. We don’t own that definition, and consequently, we don’t really own the one given in the OED, either.

Thus for us the question of mis-association becomes more pronounced. Is it necessary to say that someone must believe in total depravity of the human soul or biblical inerrancy as prerequisites to sharing their faith with the world? This assumption seems silly and needlessly exclusive. To me, those theological appendages fall subordinate to the importance of the gospel narrative.

While I’m certainly no lexicographer, I believe we need to reshape the word “evangelical” around this more universally Christian foundation (the one found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), as it seems strange to use such a narrow definition of a term that can be applied to so many different Christians in as many different contexts. It only leads to confusion and ambiguity. If we fail to extend the definition to those outside the more fundamentalist box—or for that matter the Calvinist box or the biblical inerrantist box or the anti-gay box or the televangelist’s health and wealth box—of the Christian faith, then I believe we endanger ourselves in a media-saturated world where terms get tossed around without much thought to their association or meaning.

As a Christian attempting to strengthen interfaith relationships, I become attuned to categories and their oftentimes-harmful connotations. I also see how categories can come to define one’s identity. I believe that interfaith cooperation is a way of evangelizing. However, Greg and I have encountered those who seem skeptical of this—what we’re trying to do, some say, is more assimilation that evangelization. And while I don’t buy it, such a criticism does pose the questions: What does it look like to evangelize? Who is an evangelical? In some ways, finding answers to these two issues undergirds all that Greg and I do at FLP, and gets at our very identity as Christians.

Anyway, this has run on too long. You now have my opinion on the matter— I’d love to hear yours! Should “evangelical” have an inclusive definition that accommodates to some extent all Christians, or do you think it should describe a narrow sect of the Christian faith? What do you think are the implications of both? Weigh in below!

(Also check out this great blog by renowned Baylor theologian Roger E Olson, which Greg found after I had written much of this post. Dr. Olsen explores much these same issues—I highly recommend giving it a read.)

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The Tension of the Kingdom

Photo credit: Eve Anderson

 

Despite the fact that I made a point out of the believers who had so confidently preached the message of a “Bible-guaranteed” (i.e. Harold Camping-guaranteed) rapture last week, they were on to something: the second coming of Christ is something Christians look forward to experiencing.

That is because the second coming of Christ, which is foretold in the New Testament, promises the full arrival of the kingdom of God.  But wait!  The Bible describes Jesus as saying:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)

This notion of “now, but not yet” (i.e. that the kingdom of God has come but is still coming) is a tension that, in his book Kingdom Come, Allen Wakabayashi analogizes to getting a pile of presents on Christmas morning as a kid but only being allowed to open two of them.  The kingdom of God (“God’s dream society on earth” to borrow the words of Scot McKnight) came with the coming of Jesus (described in the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) but won’t be fully realized until Jesus comes again – an event awaited eagerly by all Christians because it means restoration for all of God’s people.

So what does this “now, but not yet” tension have to do with Faith Line Protestants?

First, this tension is essential to understanding the message of the kingdom of God that Jesus was preaching.  And, to restate my central thesis on FLP for the past several months: the message that Jesus was preaching is the message that we as Christians should be preaching.

Second, this tension confuses us as Christians.  It seems like one must choose between (a) preaching to the world its sinfulness and it’s need for repentance or (b) trying to act out of concern for the earthly needs of others through acts of social justice.  Rarely does one hear from Christian teachers that these two concepts can be brought together without contradiction. In my experience, it’s typically (a) a fixation with “winning souls” because judgment is coming or (b) a way of living out faith only by serving others without concern for eternity.  Neither tells the full message of the gospel.

But the full message is apparent.  Indeed, we see that the restoration of an individual soul and the restoration of a broken world are wrapped into a single man (who was both human and divine) through his life, death, and resurrection.  In Christ, these two seemingly opposite notions eternal need and earthly need find harmony.

If you’re of the (a) type, you don’t see the benefit of interfaith work because it’s not an activity that embraces your desire to point out everyone’s sin, and if you’re of the (b) type, you might engage the interfaith movement passionately while missing the mission of communicating a message.  (Actually, I think this exercise of categorization, although never perfect, can be really helpful in understanding Christian life in a religiously diverse world.  It can also be dissected a bit further.  That’s a teaser for my next series, where I’ll draw help from Gabe Lyons’ new book The Next Christians.)

If we, as Evangelicals, want to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to the world around us, we must speak – and live – the whole message.  The tension of a kingdom that is being realized but is not fully here is the great paradox of the kingdom message.  How do you understand the tension of the kingdom?  How does it influence the way you live?  I’ll wrap up this series the kingdom of God in my next post as I suggest some answers to these questions.  In the meantime, we’d love to hear what our readers think.

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What Harold Camping Taught me About Being a Christian

Harold Camping is still here.  For that matter, so am I.

The world’s population of Christians wasn’t “raptured” last Saturday night as 89-year-old civil engineer-turned Bible numerologist Harold Camping predicted, which leaves at least a few Christians dumbfounded, embarrassed, and several thousand dollars poorer.

Naturally, I didn’t buy-in to Camping’s game, which is seemingly directly contrary to Matthew 24:36, and I even took the time for a chuckle on Friday when a friend pointed out the post-rapture service Eternal Earthbound Pets.

But sadly, several believers were featured in the media this weekend as having spent their life savings on placards and advertisements to warn the world of a “Bible-guaranteed” May 21, 2011 apocalypse that Camping was “utterly, absolutely… absolutely convinced” was going to happen.

As a Christian, I’m embarrassed.  Here at Faith Line Protestants, Cameron and I like to talk about evangelism and our relationships with people of other faiths – opening a can of worms that we don’t necessarily know how to close.  But the sad demonstration by Camping and his followers this week has pointed once again to the thesis that Cameron and I are trying to articulate to other Christians:

It’s missing the point.

For all the media buzz and interviews I saw leading up to May 21, 2011, not once do I remember hearing the message of the kingdom of God – the message that Jesus was preaching.

It’s not a message that denies Jesus’ second coming or the notion of judgment.  It’s not a message that ignores the need to recognize one’s imperfections, the requirement of repentance, or the truth that redemption is found only in Christ.

But it is a message that talks about restoration, about compassion, about forgiveness.  It means restoration for the individual soul and the whole world.  And it’s so much more than a ticket to heaven (whether you’re boarding that train at Jesus’ second coming or via the more… traditional method).

As a Christian, I feel a responsibility to communicate to people of other faiths and traditions (including those of no faith at all) that the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was a message far greater than what Family Radio billboards were preaching.  In fact, I believe that when this message is communicated clearly and effectively, people of other faiths and traditions (including those of no faith at all) may even be interested in knowing more.  When it’s a message presented through scare-tactics however…

Gabe Lyons and Jonathan Merritt said it well in their reaction piece on the Washington Post’s On Faith:

It seems this charade provides both Christians and the watching world with a teachable moment. Christians need to recognize that fear-based conversion tactics may work on young children, but they rarely resolve rational thinkers’ long-term concerns about faith. Those who went running for the rapture must now sit to wrestle with the serious questions that plagued them before. We must learn that it’s easy to rile people up with future headlines of destruction, but it’s better to inspire people with God’s will for our lives in the present.

When Christians succumb to thinking that sees escape as the answer to the world’s brokenness, we know we’ve taken a wrong turn. Jesus didn’t shrink from talking about future realities, but it’s hard to ignore that he spent the majority of his life restoring brokenness, rather than running from it. Christians often become so focused on the afterlife that they stop investing in their current life. Harold Camping will have done us all a favor if this serves as a wake-up call to Christian escapists and fear-peddlers.

Restoring the brokenness, not running from it.  That’s the message I want my life to preach.

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Dialogue or Debate?

Last spring, there was a public conversation between atheist John Loftus and Christian Dinesh D’Souza on my campus.  It was well-publicized and well-attended – packing the 1,936 seat auditorium with an audience from all walks of life.

Such a buzz, however, produced little.  It took the form of a debate: a minister-turned-atheist who attempted to use his vast education in the Christian tradition to legitimize his conclusions about the nonexistence of God and an academic Christian who presented his faith with an air of intelligence and logic.

Their banter got my thoughts churning about why I believe what I believe, but I walked out of the auditorium the same person I was when I entered – although perhaps a little more frustrated.  And at many points during the debate, especially when their exchange began to seep into ad hominem attacks instead of formal debate, I wondered what the hundreds of students here were hoping to accomplish by attending.

Interfaith work, rooted in respectful dialogue, presents a different kind of conversation about religion.  My friend Chris Stedman, a secular humanist, once said:

“This is the difference between dialogue and debate: debate is sharing in hopes of convincing; dialogue is sharing and listening in hopes of increasing understanding. In my opinion, we need more of the latter and less of the former.”

I agree with Chris.  And here’s why: history has shown us that little is accomplished in debate.  I’m willing to bet both sides of the issue, especially when that issue is the existence of God, walk out of the room more frustrated and annoyed than enlightened.  Dialogue, however, has the potential to inspire, build understanding, and develop relationships.

But let’s step back for a moment.  As an evangelical, I believe that the world needs to hear the message that my faith teaches.  I believe that it’s something of eternal consequence, and I believe that the loving approach to my neighbor is to communicate that message to them.  So when it comes to a choice between debate with the hope of convincing, and dialogue with the hope of increasing understanding, which do I choose?

For some time I would have chosen debate.  Naturally, an issue of eternal consequence carries a sense of urgency.  But since I began doing interfaith work, I have come to question the effectiveness of debate.  And I’ve heard it said that it is a symptom of insecurity that I’m not interested in arguing my faith’s validity against its greatest critics.  So is it a cop-out?

No, I choose dialogue because of my security in my faith.  I choose dialogue because it is an ally more powerful the soundest argument.  I choose dialogue because Jesus spread a message of love through listening, serving, and telling stories, not attacking, condemning or criticizing.  I choose dialogue because I believe that Jesus is the Truth and that understanding the truth is more powerful than being persuaded of it.

I have found that being a Christian in interfaith work does not mean putting evangelism on hold–no, it means understanding better what evangelism is all about, and taking the message of Jesus Christ to a table where ears are open and lives can be changed.

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