Tag Archives: Prostelytizing

Can Evangelicals be involved in interfaith work?

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

Here’s the short answer: Yes.

My long answer on the why and how:

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

Define what interfaith work is – and what it isn’t. Frankly, “interfaith” can be a scary word to anyone concerned that they might have to compromise their faith. At IFYC, we define interfaith as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. That means that you don’t have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation – whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist, you don’t have to compromise what you believe (or what you don’t believe) to engage in interfaith work. We may not agree about who gets into heaven, or if heaven exists at all. We may be divided across political lines. But we can all agree that homelessness is a problem in our community and we should tackle it together because when we start from a place of shared values and combine our social capital, we are better together. The service approach is what’s key here – many of my evangelical friends would be perfectly comfortable serving alongside folks of different religious and nonreligious traditions, but wouldn’t feel comfortable at an interfaith worship service where they felt like they couldn’t pray in the name of Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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