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.
It soon became clear that the conference was driven from start to finish by the dynamic Roberts, the networker's networker. He kept noting how this odd mélange of participants were his personal friends whom he loved deeply—and the feeling seemed universally mutual. Many a speaker noted how hard they found it to turn down Roberts's invitation to this event, many coming at their own expense and foregoing honorariums to be there. So the forum was more a conversation between the friends of Bob Roberts on multi-faith issues—and a few other issues thrown in for good measure.
This is not a criticism as much as a fact. This conference would have never been pulled together without Roberts's charisma. That it wasn't comprehensive and was sometimes off-topic might be expected of a "first-of-its-kind event." Such was the talk among the speakers, who also praised Roberts's courage for hosting it. In fact, Roberts received a lot of pushback from some in his congregation and community. Given the current climate of evangelical-Muslim relations (although Jews were included, the conversation between Christians and Muslims dominated), it felt new, risky and boundary-pushing. Evangelicals often gather to better evangelize Muslims, but not to listen to them.
And this is where tension was felt all weekend. Roberts repeated often his desire not to compromise his faith, but attenders kept wondering if merely participating in such an event—where mutual understanding was the key note—was to compromise. The basic premise of the forum is a good one: To love the neighbor means we must really listen to and get to know the neighbor. That means we need to start not by trying to convert the neighbor but by trying understand him or her, engaging in two-way conversations characterized by mutual respect and a refusal to manipulate or coerce.
But of course, as soon as you set up those guidelines, it becomes very difficult to evangelize as such. That was made apparent in the gentle teasing by Roberts throughout the conference, like when he told Prince Turki that he was filling the baptistery for him. The twinkle in his eye and the laughter the line provoked suggested that while Roberts would really like to see the Prince converted, we all knew that was never going to happen.
So, when you set up a conversation in which conversion is never a real possibility, and yet in which genuine and respectful love is clearly evident—well, is it an event worthy of an evangelical's time? That's the question that evangelicals need to be asking in the next decade or so. We are going to have to figure out how to live with Muslims in peaceful co-existence on an increasingly small planet, but we still have a command from Jesus to share the gospel with them.
I suspect Roberts's experiment will slowly catch on, because in the end, we may have no choice. The old evangelistic model—one-way communication framed by the effort to persuade—seems increasingly manipulative in the modern world. Instead, Roberts is trying to reimagine evangelism by (paradoxically) initially taking the Great Commission off the table and first working on the Great Commandment: listening to and serving those of other faiths. Roberts, in fact, says he has the most "incredible" (his word) theological, even evangelistic, conversations in private with friends of other faiths. Surely he has gained entrance into their lives because of his generous spirit.
To many evangelicals, Roberts's work feels as if it might be compromising evangelical faith. Then again, you have to wonder what has happened to our faith when we think that loving people in a way that makes them feel loved makes us think we have stopped following Jesus.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God, and the forthcoming: Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Surprising Work of the Holy Spirit. He was one of the speakers at the Global Faith Forum.
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The Global Faith Forum website has more about the meeting.