Putting Evangelism on Hold
One session of the Global Faith Forum—a conference for Muslims, Jews, and Christians—began with everyone singing, "Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had father Abraham … ," that old children's chorus with body motions. There's nothing uniquely Christian, Muslim, or Jewish about it (though it's uniquely evangelical in its silliness!). But the prominent evangelical standing next to me did not join in, and later told me, "I just couldn't decide if singing that song with Muslims and Jews constituted joint worship, and I'm not convinced we can worship together."
Such was the tension that many evangelicals experienced at the forum, held at NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, November 12-14.
Bob Roberts, pastor of NorthWood Church and catalyst of the forum, opened the event by emphasizing his own beliefs:
"I am an evangelical Christian. I believe in the Bible," he said to a group of about 500 who had gathered the first night (eventually over 600 attended the event held Nov. 12-14). "I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died for my sins, that he will come again."
Then he added that he was not interested in a lowest-common denominator faith, or "inter-religious" dialogue. For him "inter-religious" means dumbing down everybody's beliefs to some bland, sentimental, global civic religion. Instead he organized this conference to be "multi-faith," so that people could discuss openly and frankly the differences of the three Abrahamic faiths.
In fact, the conference spent relatively little time on theological differences, and more on trying to clear up stereotypes we have of one another. In two different plenary panel discussions, Roberts began by asking each participant, "What is the one thing people most misunderstand about your tribe?" Answers ranged from "Muslims don't hate evangelicals" to "There has been a dynamic Arab Christian community from the days of the Pentecost."
Among those giving the Muslim perspective in such forums were Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki Al-Faisal, nephew of the present King Abdullah and former ambassador to the U.S., Najeeba Syeed-Miller of Claremont School of Theology, and Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core.
The Jewish perspective—represented only on Friday night's plenary panel—was represented by Rabbi Jeremy Schneider (of Temple Shalom, and Reform congregation in Dallas) and the vociferous anti-Zionist Mark Braverman. Unfortunately, there was no sufficient voice on the pro-Zionist side to counterbalance Braverman, or the Islamic scholar John Esposito, who also made a few digs at Israel in the course of his presentations.
Two Palestinian Christians, Sami Awad, executive director of Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, and Henry Mikhail, an American raised in Jerusalem, were the major Christian voices on the plenary panels. They gave a decided slant to the Christian perspective, but it did open the eyes of a number of attendees to the significant Christian population among Arabs—and this was Roberts's point in featuring these two so prominently.
The "Global Faith" part was a little confusing at times. Two plenaries included Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. Le Cong Phung, a man who claims no religious affiliation. Other plenary addresses were on global business (by Al Weiss, president of Walt Disney World Resort), urban ministry (by Ray Bakke of Bakke Graduate University), multi-cultural churches (by Pastor Mark DeYmaz of Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Arkansas), and religious freedom (by Os Guinness). These were each engaging, even inspired, talks, but it was difficult to make the connection to the multi-faith conversation.