What I Learned from Hosting Interfaith Dialogue

Faith Matters
I found that when students spoke about Christianity with people of other belief systems, they often reduced their faith to actions.

When I was working in campus ministry, my student leaders wanted to host an interfaith dialogue series. They expressed to me their desire to learn about some of the other faiths represented at our secular university while also growing in their own. So we invited people into our chaplain’s office to discuss various themes relating to worldview and religion.

I tried to do all the necessary prep work. I advertised the event, chose topics that would relate to all faith groups, crafted questions to start the conversation, and set up guidelines for discussing our differences respectfully. But when the time came and we began to chat with our guests (some atheists, some Muslims, some Seventh-day Adventist), I realized one major oversight: I had not prepared the students in our ministry to explain the basics of their faith to people who didn’t share it.

I found that when students spoke about Christianity with people of other belief systems, they often reduced their faith to actions: “Because we’re Christians, we don’t do ______.” Perhaps it’s easier to talk about concrete behaviors than complex theological concepts. It makes you vulnerable to say you believe in a man who rose from the dead. It’s difficult to explain that you worship a God who became human and is still here but is also coming again. Maybe it’s more comfortable to describe the way we live than the things we believe (even though our beliefs inform the way we live). Perhaps when we’re nervous we revert to the technical aspects of our faith.

But our faith is not defined by the technical parts. Ours is not a religion of do’s and don'ts. It’s a faith defined by grace, love, and trust in an intimate, self-sacrificing, relational God who takes us as we are, who holds us as his children, who walks with us through life’s ups and downs. Peter instructs us to “(a)lways be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

While I was raised in a Christian Reformed subculture, I attended Pentecostal mission trips during my teenage years. We learned the ABC’s of evangelism, chanted phrases like “Repent, confess, believe, receive!” and memorized the sinner’s prayer. Then we took to the streets, where we proselytized strangers. As an adult I became critical of many aspects of this type of ministry. But one of the gifts I gained in those formative years was practice in communicating the joys of my friendship with God.

I no longer reference the ABC’s of Christianity when I talk about my faith with people. Each conversation looks quite different. I share why I still love Jesus after all these years. I describe faith as a mystery and yet a belief system that can handle our questions. I express my trust in a God who is love.

The Christian Reformed Church has a great resource for these types of conversations in Our World Belongs to God. This document can be used not only as a Sunday-morning reminder of the basics of our faith, but also as an effective resource for sharing our faith with others. I wish that, in preparation for our interfaith dialogue series, I had taken my students through Our World Belongs to God to remind us of the basics. I wish I had provided them with opportunities to practice discussing their faith with people who know little about it—not to provide canned and recitable answers, but rather so that when nervousness sets in they feel ready to authentically speak about the core of the faith that defines them.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Share an experience you had with either an interfaith event or an interfaith conversation/friendship. How did you feel about it? What did you learn?
  2. How would you explain the basics of your Christian faith to someone who has never heard it?
  3. How do you feel about evangelism methods? What are your experiences with them?
  4. Try taking a section or paragraph of Our World Belongs to God and see if you can use it to share your Christian faith to others.

About the Author

Melissa is a writer and CRC chaplain to Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont.

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Comments

Thank you, Melissa, for sharing your thoughts and concerns when it comes to sharing the Christian faith with those of other faiths or religions. I think you are right in suggesting that reducing one’s faith to a bunch of actions isn’t really sharing the heart of Christianity. Such reduction would make Christianity the same as most religions, a matter of doing good and leading a God-honoring life. At the heart of Christianity is the person and work of Jesus Christ. For Christians, there is no saving grace apart from Christ. It doesn’t make sense to talk about Christianity without talking about Jesus and the theology that surrounds him, just as it doesn’t make sense to talk about other religions apart from their basic theology.

But this is where the rub or difficulty comes in and the reason why young people, especially educated people, would rather share practical matters rather than the core of the Christian faith. To most people the person and work of Christ sounds rather hokey and corny. That Jesus came to earth as God from heaven as a baby, lived a perfect life, performed miracle after miracle, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and is coming back to earth someday, this all sounds rather trite and unbelievable. In fact, it sounds just as unbelievable as all the miracles and theology of other religions sounds to Christians. And yet those of other religions claim that their miracles and wonders are just as true as our miracles and wonders, being based on their God inspired Scriptures, like that of the Bible. As sure as we are that our religion is the true religion so are they of theirs.

So if other religions sound hokey to us, so does Christianity sound the same to others. Knowing that, is what makes sharing the heart of the Christian faith difficult, and why it is much easier to stick practical matters, which isn’t really sharing the gospel at all.

Melissa, thank you for being vulnerable! It's a risky thing to raise the idea that maybe we don't really know what we believe - at least in 2021 language and concepts. Having a bunch of religious data and spiritual cliches in our heads is more comfortable than stretching ourselves to find the language to speak with others about the life-giving and transforming grace of Jesus that has grabbed us by the scruff of the neck. I hope and pray we as a community learn to do this better together!

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