I am an evangelical Christian in higher education engaging in interfaith work. Some may call this an oxymoron. I am also in the business of persuading other evangelicals to join me. Some may call this a pipedream. Just ask the executive director of an interfaith organization that I dialogued with recently, who told me my mission was futile:
I appreciate that you are trying to help Evangelicals do better in the area of interreligious engagement. I will be frank up front: I wouldn't put energy to it and didn't offer [encouragement] to you precisely because I feel that Evangelicals have a false premise (as a prerequisite) and it is a pillar of Evangelicalism (that salvation is through Jesus Christ alone, among other things)...I think you are talking about bailing water when there is a hole in the ship, or using band-aids or over the counter medicine, when there is an ailment that requires invasive surgery (Personal communication, July 31, 2017).
Though his harsh tone was a bit surprising, his views are not uncommon. I recently organized an interfaith panel at my university (NC State) and invited an evangelical Christian from the local community to be on the panel. I hoped that this would draw students from some of the evangelical campus ministries, who were not accustomed to seeing one of their own represented at an interfaith event. One campus staff member caught wind of this, and sent me an email expressing her concerns:
I did have concern in seeing that the one person from a Christian perspective is identified as an 'evangelical Christian.' I must acknowledge that this identity gives me pause as my experience with those who identify in that way are typically focused on converting others...I find this deeply concerning. I think for a person to come to an interfaith event what that explicit agenda is not in the spirit of interfaith dialogue (Personal communication, October 19, 2017).
She encouraged me to either take the evangelical voice off the panel, or to add a progressive Christian voice to provide balance in perspective. To her credit, the evangelical participant ended up doing a very poor job. His demeanor was arrogant and he did not choose his words carefully. My greatest disappointment was that he played right into the concerns of those just mentioned, and reinforced the notion that evangelicals have no place at the interfaith table.
Lately, I’ve been encouraged by some of the progress evangelicals have been making. A coalition of young evangelical pastors recently joined Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic leaders in Washington D.C. to sign a joint statement on the importance of religious freedom for all people. In addition, an evangelical immigration agency in the Chicago suburbs, World Relief, has been very vocal against Trump’s immigration policies, including the “Muslim ban.” In their official statement on the one year anniversary of the ban, they wrote:
About 27,000 fewer Christian refugees were admitted in the first year of the new administration than in the previous year, a decline of 63 percent, and about 80 percent fewer Muslim refugees were admitted during the same period. The combination of drastically reducing the refugee arrivals ceiling with the various executive orders affecting refugees over the past year have harmed persecuted Christians as well as those of other faiths...These families have become an intricate part of the fabric of our country—working here, paying taxes here, raising their children here and sharing with all of us the amazing testimony of overcoming adversity (World Relief, 2018).
Slowly, evangelicals seem to be realizing that as America becomes more religiously diverse, their witness to Christ must change to accommodate this reality. Fortunately, they’ve done this before; when the new atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) rose to prominence in the mid-to-late 2000’s, books and other resources abounded on how to counter their arguments. The most prominent example is Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, which reached #7 on The New York Times Best Seller list for non-fiction in 2008.
As a result, many evangelical millennials (like me) have at least some experience framing their faith in ways that religious skeptics could appreciate. This preoccupation with the arguments of religious skeptics can still be seen among evangelicals today, as the God is Not Dead film series from 2014-2018 can attest. At NC State this year, the most heavily marketed event by an evangelical campus ministry was the “God and Morality” symposium put on by CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). It featured evangelical leaders who addressed the most common arguments posed by religious skeptics against Christianity.
To become good religious neighbors, evangelical students will need to realize that religious skeptics are not the only worldview group in America that their witness must account for. They will also need a new set of tools, because the tools that they are using to address religious skeptics are largely ineffective and/or inappropriate for engaging people of other faiths. This includes a basic level of religious literacy and an appreciative knowledge of other religious traditions that recognizes their strengths and rejects harmful caricatures.
This also includes the development of new social habits. While a guarded or argumentative posture may have been encouraged toward religious skeptics, many people of other faiths take their beliefs in God, salvation, and miracles very seriously, just like evangelicals do. This often comes as a surprise; numerous evangelicals have told me some iteration of this story: “My religious neighbors were so hospitable and generous to us. They were more than happy to talk about their beliefs and practices. In fact, they seemed more devoted to their religion than we are. We were totally caught off guard.”
The social habits that evangelicals need to cultivate include:
1. Making space for authentic friendships, where both participants give and receive
2. Being an authentic listener, instead of listening for clues that reinforce one’s assumptions
3. Seeking their welfare, which includes their religious freedom, basic needs, and pursuit of happiness
4. Bearing truthful witness, which includes correcting inaccurate information and holding other evangelicals accountable for their words
I am the co-founder of an organization that strives to help evangelicals develop these social habits, and to help them become good religious neighbors to people of other faiths. Neighborly Faith began in 2015 when I was a graduate student at Wheaton College, where myself and a classmate came to the realization that American evangelicalism has very few resources for helping its members figure out what faithfulness looks like in a multi-faith world. Furthermore, we agreed that people of other faiths simply weren't on the radar of the average evangelical Church; if they were, it was only by-proxy through the international missionaries they helped support financially.
We cringed when we looked back on the blunders of the late 2000’s, when evangelicals didn’t have the resources to think graciously about sexual diversity. They once again assumed their position as the bully of the public square, only revisiting the issue after significant damage had already been done. We felt a responsibility to help evangelicals change the narrative. Instead of being known for their defensiveness and fear-mongering, we’re asking what it will take for evangelical Christians to be known by people of other religions as the most hospitable and loving members of their society.
One of the ways that we’re answering this question is by exposing everyday evangelicals to role models that they can follow after. We invite evangelical leaders who are living a “neighborly faith” to share their stories on The Neighborly Faith Podcast. Evangelicals are notorious for vetting ideas on the basis of whether they are endorsed by leaders they trust. Of the thousands of articles and books written every year by non-evangelicals to or about evangelicals, it’s unlikely that the average evangelical has read any of them. This doesn’t mean that evangelicals aren’t consuming content or exploring new ideas, but that they tend to flock toward resources that receive the endorsement of their communities. This is why we have chosen to make our podcast the hallmark of our efforts; the testimonies of trusted evangelical leaders are a powerful motivator for everyday evangelicals to change their ways.
I recently spoke with a student affairs administrator at a public university who hoped that evangelical students would participate in her interfaith programming. To be honest, I was prepared to hear the classic refrain: “I tried to get evangelical students involved, but they won’t show up. What do I do now?” As it turns out, she was a former evangelical who knew the ropes. The first thing she did was identify an evangelical leader on campus who could serve as an ambassador to the evangelical community. She knew that her invitation would be taken more seriously if it came from him. She wasn’t resentful about this; she wanted the attendees of her interfaith programs to represent the religious diversity that existed on campus, and was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen.
Unlike previous generations, young evangelicals are poised to take advantage of these opportunities. I recently spoke with an evangelical who has been in this space much longer than I have. He devoted the first few years of his young career developing and marketing a Bible study curriculum entitled Loving Our Religious Neighbors. I asked him if he’s still hopeful for evangelicals after all he’s seen and experienced. Without hesitation, he said, “Young evangelicals are totally ready for this. They see its importance” (personal communication, March 2, 2018).
The data on evangelical students is confirming his suspicion. Of 3,200 incoming evangelical students who participated in the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), 82% felt it was important that their colleges and universities “provide a welcoming environment for people of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives” (Crandall et. al, 2016). Moreover, 71% scored highly on the IDEALS “Goodwill/Acceptance Scale,” signaling that a majority have positive attitudes toward people with different worldviews and believe that interreligious understanding will make for a more peaceful world.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, many have given up on evangelicals. However, it is critical that higher education professionals realize that young evangelicals are shaping up to look very different than their predecessors. A 2017 Pew Research study confirmed that millennial evangelicals are more socially conscious and politically progressive than older generations of evangelicals (Diamant & Alper, 2017). To conflate all evangelical students with the prototypical “Trumpvangelical” would be a mistake, and will lead to missed opportunities for both evangelical students and campus interfaith initiatives. If the data is any indication, evangelicals will shed their status as “interfaith oxymorons” much sooner than many people anticipate. My calling is to help ensure that evangelicals are ready for the occasion.
Boorstein, M. (2018, February 08). How the National Prayer Breakfast sparked an unusual meeting between Muslims and evangelicals. Retrieved March 11, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/02/08/how-the-national-prayer-breakfast-sparked-an-unusual-meeting-between-muslims-and-evangelicals/?utm_term=.5b51a0f8cd4f
Crandall, R. E., Snipes, J. T., Staples, A., Rockenbach, A. N., Mayhew, M. J., & Associates. (2016). IDEALS Narratives: Incoming Evangelical Students. Chicago, IL: Interfaith Youth Core.
Diamant, J., & Alper, B. A. (2017). Though still conservative, young evangelicals are more liberal than their elders on some issues. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/04/though-still-conservative-young-evangelicals-are-more-liberal-than-their-elders-on-some-issues/
World Relief Issues Official Statement on the One Year Anniversary of the Travel Ban. (2018, January 25). Retrieved March 11, 2018, from https://www.worldrelief.org/press-releases/world-relief-issues-official-statement-on-the-one-year-anniversary-of-the-travel-ban