You may recall that for the last three years I've been a part of the Multi-faith Matters Collaborative Inquiry Team, funded by a grant from the Louisville Institute. This team was composed of three evangelical pastors and three evangelical academics, coming together to put together case studies and collect stories of evangelical churches involved in positive forms of multi-faith engagement in their neighborhoods. In this email update I'll summarize what we've done, and share a little about how we hope to build on this in the near future.
As of the time of writing of this report, our team has compiled ten case studies from churches across the U.S. This includes The Gathering Church in Salem, MA interacting with Pagans and Atheists; Bob Roberts of NorthWood Church in Keller, TX interacting with Muslims; The Church Lab in Austin, TX working with a spectrum of people from Latter-day Saints to Jews to Muslims to Buddhists, to Atheists and Agnostics; New Wine, New Wineskins in Portland, OR working with Zen Buddhists; River City Christian Church in Sacramento, CA ministering among Muslim immigrants; New Harvest Church of God in Knoxville, TN interacting with Muslims; Redemption Church in Phoenix, AZ working with Muslims and various immigrant populations; Otter Creek Church in Nashville, TN ministering among Muslims; Cole Community Church in Boise, ID working with Muslims; and Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Tucker, GA working with Muslims and Reformed Jews.
This case study document captured basic organizational data about churches. It included space for the church to share their story of multi-faith engagement, what multi-faith neighbor communities these churches are working with, and the what, why, and how of their work. Although the churches come from different denominational backgrounds and are located across the country, their responses to the case study questions were very similar, indicating that they are drawing upon a common understanding of the implications of the gospel and the broader biblical narrative as lived out in pluralistic America.
A comparison of the case studies revealed that most of the churches drew upon the same rationale. Love of neighbor, love of immigrant, love of enemy, and the parable of the Good Samaritan were seen as the primary reasons why these churches were doing what they were doing, and in the wa they were doing it. In terms of how they were engaging, hospitality and shared meals was a major form of engagement, which then facilitates conversations and helps build relationships.
The project also resulted in the production of several outcomes. One of these is a website that tells the stories of these churches, and which also serves as a rallying place for churches involved in this work to become a network. You can look at this website at https://multifaithmatters.org. Please share this link, and if you know of other churches doing similar work that could be a part of this network, please let us know.
We've captured some great data and stories, but we've only just begun. In the initial work of Multi-faith Matters the core question surrounded what positive work was being done by evangelical churches in multi-faith engagement. Given the data and stories gleaned from our case studies, and our research in moral psychology in dialogue with a theology of engaging other religions, questions arise as to how and why these churches have overcome the theological and psychological challenges that prevent most evangelicals from participation in positive forms of multi-faith engagement. In light of this phenomenon, the core question for our continuing work is this: Why are these case study churches pursuing positive multi-faith engagement rather than combative forms more commonly seen in conservative evangelical churches? More specifically, how have they overcome evangelical concerns for purity (orthodoxy) and fears of contamination (syncretism) in multi-faith encounters, and how can the answers to this question be incorporated into a strategic effort at storytelling for social change within conservative evangelicalism?
In our team’s perspective this issue is paramount to positive multi-faith engagement by conservative evangelicals. Failure to understand the dynamics involved is at the root of more defensive evangelical reactions to multi-faith, and the reason why many evangelicals believe positive multi-faith engagement involves compromise and opens participants to spiritual defilement. We want to understand why and how the churches in our prior study overcame this, and how we can build on this by incorporating the lessons learned into projects aimed at evangelicals that can produce social change within evangelicalism. This is defined as helping increase the number of evangelicals and churches feel and know that loving multi-faith neighbors can be done without compromise of evangelical convictions or purity, and an increased number of evangelicals involved in positive multi-faith engagement.
In order to answer these questions, and in order to create more persuasive stories for evangelicals on multi-faith engagement, the next phase of our work will involve research in strategic storytelling for social change within evangelicalism, and this will be combined with the results of research into the psychology behind theological concerns for purity that often inhibit multi-faith encounters. One of our outcomes for this would be a couple of short inspirational films that include the results of our research that can help address evangelical concerns and send the message that you can be a good evangelical and love your multi-faith neighbor without fear of contamination and compromise.
Please be in prayer for us as we seek additional grant funding for the next phase of our research and resource production.