Written by Amber Hacker, Vice President for Communications and Operations, Interfaith America
Interfaith cooperation is based on engaging religious and nonreligious communities around issues of common concern. One of the most significant, diverse, and growing groups in the United States today is evangelical Christians. As interfaith groups on college and university campuses look to mobilize students and grow their impact, it is important for them to think critically about how to best engage evangelical Christians and support their interfaith leadership. Coming from an evangelical background myself, I understand at a personal level that the value of interfaith leadership is tied together with Christian commitment. Seeing that connection manifest in beautiful and beneficial ways inspired me to write this resource.
As with any belief system, there are a number of ways to define what it means to be an evangelical Christian. For the sake of clarity, when I use the term “evangelical Christians” I am referring to individuals and groups with a firm belief that the Christian Bible is the authoritative word of God, that Jesus is the Savior for all people, and that sharing one’s faith through missionary and service work is a crucial element of salvation.1
This resource will help your interfaith group think about how it can be part of engaging evangelicals in interfaith cooperation on campus. I will address some frequently asked questions, give tips for groups interested in working with evangelical Christians, and offer further resources and readings for more information.
Tips for Relationship Building
- Affirm that Evangelicals are welcome, and a much needed voice in the conversation. America is a religiously diverse country and evangelical Christianity represents a vibrant and vital piece of that diversity. If we want to create communities where religious and nonreligious traditions are building bridges of cooperation, we have to have evangelicals on board. I am proud to say that—as a group—evangelical Christians have been at the forefront of cooperative service work here in the United States and internationally. However, often many evangelical folks want to be involved in interfaith work but don’t feel like they are welcome. It is important to make it clear that evangelicals are wanted and needed at the table of interfaith cooperation just like any other religious or nonreligious group interested in engaging and working with others.
- Define what interfaith cooperation is—and what it isn’t. Frankly, “interfaith” can be a scary word to anyone concerned that they might have to compromise their faith. Interfaith America defines the goals of interfaith cooperation as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. Interfaith cooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; essentially, you should not have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation—whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist, you do not have to compromise what you believe (or what you do not believe) to engage in interfaith work.
Example from the field
A few years ago, my Interfaith America colleagues visited a campus that was interested in how they could build and sustain interfaith initiatives in their community. During that visit, we met with several campus groups, students, and staff. A Christian colleague met with a conservative student evangelical group that requested a meeting with us; they heard we were coming to campus and were skeptical about our intentions. As we spoke, the leaders of the group shared their reservations about interfaith work: the way they understood it, interfaith seemed to require watering-down religious commitments and letting go of the particularities of their beliefs. They were worried, therefore, that they couldn’t be their authentic selves while doing interfaith work. My colleague emphasized that interfaith work was only authentic if it brought together those with real disagreements and created space for participants to talk about what mattered most to them in their traditions.
After reflecting on this, the student leaders replied: “If you want us to help organize an event bringing together people of different faiths to do a service project, we can do that. And afterwards if you want us to talk about how Jesus inspires us to serve, and listen to why others from different backgrounds are called to service…we can definitely do that. We’re just not sure we want to call it ‘interfaith.’” We now understood that the barrier to participation wasn’t about not wanting to engage with those who held different beliefs, but instead was rooted in a concern about whether or not ‘interfaith’ was actually inclusive of those of deep religious and secular commitments. Because service was deeply important to their understanding of their evangelical Christian commitment, and because they felt like serving and sharing with others would allow them to remain true to their identities, they were eager to be involved, even if the language of ‘interfaith’ was still uncomfortable for them.