Interfaith cooperation is based on engaging religious and nonreligious communities around issues of common concern. One of the most significant, diverse, and growing groups in the United States today is evangelical Christians. As interfaith groups on college and university campuses look to mobilize students and grow their impact, it is important for them to think critically about how to best engage evangelical Christians and support their interfaith leadership. Coming from an evangelical background myself, I understand at a personal level that the value of interfaith leadership is tied together with Christian commitment. Seeing that connection manifest in beautiful and beneficial ways inspired me to write this resource.
As with any belief system, there are a number of ways to define what it means to be an evangelical Christian. For the sake of clarity, when I use the term “evangelical Christians” I am referring to individuals and groups with a firm belief that the Christian Bible is the authoritative word of God, that Jesus is the Savior for all people, and that sharing one’s faith through missionary and service work is a crucial element of salvation.1
This resource will help your interfaith group think about how it can be part of engaging evangelicals in interfaith cooperation on campus. I will address some frequently asked questions, give tips for groups interested in working with evangelical Christians, and offer further resources and readings for more information.
Tips for Relationship-Building
1. Affirm that Evangelicals are Welcome, and a Much Needed Voive in the Conversation. America is a religiously diverse country and evangelical Christianity represents a vibrant and vital piece of that diversity. If we want to create communities where religious and nonreligious traditions are building bridges of cooperation, we have to have evangelicals on board. I am proud to say that—as a group—evangelical Christians have been at the forefront of cooperative service work here in the United States and internationally. However, often many evangelical folks want to be involved in interfaith work but don’t feel like they are welcome. It is important to make it clear that evangelicals are wanted and needed at the table of interfaith cooperation just like any other religious or nonreligious group interested in engaging and working with others.
2. Define What Interfaith Cooperation is - and What is Isn't. Frankly, “interfaith” can be a scary word to anyone concerned that they might have to compromise their faith. IFYC defines the goals of interfaith cooperation 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. Interfaith cooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; essentially, you should not 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 do not have to compromise what you believe (or what you do not believe) to engage in interfaith work.
Example from the Field
A few years ago, my IFYC colleagues visited a campus that was interested in how they could build and sustain interfaith initiatives in their community. During that visit, we met with several campus groups, students, and staff. A Christian colleague met with a conservative student evangelical group that requested a meeting with us; they heard we were coming to campus and were skeptical about our intentions. As we spoke, the leaders of the group shared their reservations about interfaith work: the way they understood it, interfaith seemed to require watering-down religious commitments and letting go of the particularities of their beliefs. They were worried, therefore, that they couldn’t be their authentic selves while doing interfaith work. My colleague emphasized that interfaith work was only authentic if it brought together those with real disagreements and created space for participants to talk about what mattered most to them in their traditions.
After reflecting on this, the student leaders replied: “If you want us to help organize an event bringing together people of different faiths to do a service project, we can do that. And afterwards if you want us to talk about how Jesus inspires us to serve, and listen to why others from different backgrounds are called to service…we can definitely do that. We’re just not sure we want to call it ‘interfaith.’” We now understood that the barrier to participation wasn’t about not wanting to engage with those who held different beliefs, but instead was rooted in a concern about whether or not ‘interfaith’ was actually inclusive of those of deep religious and secular commitments. Because service was deeply important to their understanding of their evangelical Christian commitment, and because they felt like serving and sharing with others would allow them to remain true to their identities, they were eager to be involved, even if the language of ‘interfaith’ was still uncomfortable for them.
3. Emphasize Service. Evangelical Christianity is not a formal denomination but rather an approach to Christianity that focuses on sharing the Christian Gospel and places a high priority on sharing one’s faith in Jesus. Interfaith cooperation provides the opportunity for people to live out the core tenants of their religious or nonreligious values and empowers them to speak openly about how those convictions motivate their life. For some, this is also a form of bearing witness. 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 caring for the poor is an important shared value within our traditions or ideals, and if we start the conversation there, we can begin to build a relationship based on shared values.
4. Stay Away from "Interfaith Worship and Prayer." Many evangelicals wouldn’t feel comfortable at an interfaith worship service where they felt like they couldn’t pray in the name of Jesus. In the same way that folks in other traditions—including many nonreligious communities—might not feel comfortable worshipping, some evangelicals feel like interfaith “worship” waters down their faith, and isn’t the ideal way to engage difference. The service approach is what’s key here: addressing a common issue together alongside folks of different religious and nonreligious traditions.
5. Affirm the Importance of Evangelizing… In the Christian Bible it says to “go into the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Sharing the work and salvation of Jesus Christ is a key component of Christian belief and practices and recognizing this is important to understanding the values of evangelical students, staff, and faculty in interfaith groups. Indeed, many groups have a missional (or evangelizing) focus at times, including Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, and Bahá’ís. All members of an interfaith group should respect the motivating values of each other, evangelical or otherwise, and avoid harmful stereotyping of certain practices.
6. …But Make it Clear that Interfaith Work Isn't the Place for Proselytizing. In a religiously diverse space it’s important to both acknowledge the importance of those beliefs while engaging in respectful relationship-building. Not everyone will agree with these beliefs (even within Christianity). Indeed, interfaith cooperation exists not because people believe the same things, but because they don’t. Interfaith service is about identifying the values individuals do share as a group and using that shared platform to affect change in the world. 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.
7. Become Familiar with a Christian Theology of Interfaith Cooperation. What historical or theological precedent is there in Christianity that supports interfaith cooperation? Develop your knowledge of stories, teachings, Scripture, and history from the Christian tradition that highlight the importance of interfaith engagement. Organizations like World Relief and Habitat for Humanity, founded by evangelical Christians, provide relief services, disaster aid, and healthcare to millions across the world. Their work has also served as a model to nonprofits and NGOs, both 4 religiously-affiliated and secular, for effective international social action. Similar to learning about tikkun olam in the Jewish tradition or Sikh commitments to hospitality towards all people, understanding what motivates evangelical Christians to act with others is a key part of interfaith leadership.
- Nick Price, an IFYC alum and a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, wrote a three part series called Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work to share his own theology of interfaith cooperation from the evangelical perspective.
- Loving our Religious Neighbors is a curriculum aimed at evangelical communities to help them build relationships with their religious neighbors.
- Fuller Theological Seminary’s Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue Journal creates space for evangelical scholars and practitioners to dialogue about the dynamics, challenges, practices, and theology surrounding interfaith work.
- IFYC’s founder, Eboo Patel, spoke at Wheaton College, and offered this reflection in the Washington Post: How can Muslims and Christians work together?
- Evangelical Christian Skye Jethani, an ordained pastor, author, and speaker on why evangelicals should reach out to Muslims (and Hindus, Buddhists, and others).
1 Much of this definition is based on information provided by the National Association of Evangelicals. For more details: http://nae.net/what-isan-evangelical/