Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Public Square in a Multi-Faith World

On November 16 from 2 PM until 9 PM, I will be taking part in the Mid-Atlantic Summit on Faith and Culture in Glenwood, Maryland.  While this meeting doesn't technically "belong" to any particular group, various faith communities have come together to "co-host" an event that both reflects the multi-faith nature of the world we live in, and provides a public square platform on which each group can understand, and be understood.

The event will be hosted by Gethsemane Baptist Church, which is a part of the 560-plus member Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network of churches I'm honored to help lead.  Two other Baptist churches are also taking part, as well as the Oseh Shalom Synagogue, and two Turkish Muslim organizations.  The goal is to have honest discussion about the various world views that are currently shaping the globe.

So why would any follower of Jesus take part in something like this?  Aren't we "sending mixed messages" to the world?  Would Jesus and His disciples have even attended such a meeting, let alone helped put such a meeting together?

These are all good questions, and I completely understand why some of my fellow evangelicals would be suspicious of something like this.  We believe in one true God, who reveals Himself ultimately and finally in His one true Son, who is Himself revealed in one true authority source--the Bible.  We consequently believe that there is one path to that one true God.  So why would we take part in something that allows those who believe differently to sit on the platform with us?

Over the past few weeks I've fielded lots of questions from folks about why I"m part of something like this, and a few have been critical of what we are doing.  Those who have given me that heat have, for the most part, been respectful, concerned for me, and have assumed the best about my intentions, and I'm grateful for that. In fact, I welcome it, as the last thing I want to do is dishonor Jesus.  So I'm always seeking the Godly counsel of those I respect.   But a few have been quite caustic--suggesting that there is absolutely no place for a follower of Jesus in an environment like this.

Man, how I wish those people had actually read the book of Acts.

The early church won people to faith in Christ and planted churches rapidly--to the point that by the end of the first century, their faith had grown from a small band of around 120 people to have a significant presence across the known world.  And if we look closely enough at how this happened, we discover that each Gospel presence began in a "public square."  In the ancient world, the public square was a place where ideas were presented and considered--where the sort of interaction took place that resulted in clarity and understanding.  Os Guiness notes that "comparison and contrast are the mother of clarity."  That was true 2000 years ago, and its still true today.

Today, what is often described as the "public square" is nothing like that which existed in the first century.  I've often seen seminars, breakout sessions, and other gatherings that discussed "Christianity in the Public Square," and nearly every one of them described how our faith should intersect with the political powers that be in order to "win the culture war."  In many ways, this short-sighted approach has resulted in resorting to the same default tactics that are employed by those political powers, and in recent years, that has included a kind of polarization that never, ever leads to understanding, debate and genuine dialogue.  The result is that we talk "about" people in a way that demonstrates our ignorance in a quite embarrassing way.  You've heard the rumors, right?  Muslims are all terrorists.  Jews are secretly plotting to take over the world.  And of course, evangelical Christians are all bigoted homophobes who hate women, Mickey Mouse, and birth control pills.

An environment that produces this kind of fear and suspicion can never rightly be known as a "public square" equivalent to those which existed in the first century.  To be sure, there are significant differences between those of us who follow Jesus, and our Jewish and Muslim friends.  Basic logic should inform us all that we can't all be right, and that there are eternal consequences to what we believe.  This means that if I really love someone, I will be anxious to talk about those differences.  I believe that through Jesus' death and resurrection He has paid the price for our sins so that all who believe and bow before Him as God will have eternal life.  If you believe that too, how badly do you have to hate someone to isolate yourself from them and never enter an environment where you may get to share this message?

Truthfully, a genuine 21st century public square looks an awful lot like the kind of summit that is taking place on November 16.  Yet, it is precisely that environment that for many decades has been completely abandoned by evangelical Christians. I get that our message isn't popular and I believe Jesus when He said we would be hated for what we believe.  But as I survey the current landscape in the west, it appears to me that our disconnection from culture is less because we are hated, and more because we are disobedient.  Jesus told His disciples "As the Father has sent me, so also am I sending you." (John 20:21)  In other words we aren't just a sent people.  We are a people sent in precisely the same way our Savior was sent--in an incarnational way!

Understanding this will affect your view of the world He died to save in profound ways, and that in turn will affect the missiology of the western church in a way that will make us far more effective.  This Summit is certainly not the only way we engage our non-Christian friends, but if you are a follower of Jesus--especially one who lives in the Mid-Atlantic region and are wondering why you should come, here are just a few reasons:

1. We Don't Just Share Our Faith.  We Share Life.  Be they Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Jew, Hindu, or anything else, at the end of the day, people are people.  We all get up and look at the same sun in the morning.  We all deal with troubles, heartache, disappointment and loss, and we all have things we are passionate about and love.  We need to take an interest in each other that encompasses more than just what we believe.  My friends in other faiths understand that I want them to know Jesus as I know Him.  They know I believe that there is only one way to God, and many who have become dear friends also know why I believe that.  But they also know my wife and kids.  Our kids have played together.  We have shared meals together.  And we have talked about important life issues that connect inextricably to faith.

On occasion, those discussions have led to taking action together.  Baltimore is one of the top cities in the U.S. for human trafficking, so our respective organizations teamed up to lobby the judiciary committee of our state legislature to push an important anti-trafficking bill to the floor--and on to the Governor's desk for it to become law.  People's lives were made better because people of faith who have strong disagreement with each other about the next world worked together to make this one better.

One of these men is the Vice-President of a cultural exchange organization in Washington who has become a dear friend--to the extent that his family and mine will be spending part of the Thanksgiving holiday together.  If all I saw when I looked at him was the word "Muslim" he would have never become my friend.  He'd be my "project," and that's no way to treat another human being created in God's image.  Jesus was clear about the coming Kingdom, and His Kingship over it, but that message was presented while He simultaneously enveloped Himself in the lives of others.  We must do no less.

2. Encountering Adherents to Other Faiths Helps Us More Effectively Communicate Our Own. I studied Philosophy of Religion in seminary, but my faith in the existence of a personal God has been strengthened over the years less by books, and more by interaction with my atheist and agnostic friends.  My Muslim friends likewise, have made me a more convinced Trinitarian.  I'm quite sure that wasn't their objective, but when you encounter a world that doesn't share your faith, and you do so on a very personal level, it forces you to think beyond our basic "because the Bible says so" thinking to actually know why you believe as you do.  To be sure, my childlike faith in the Scriptures is still there.  You can blame those Baptists in that small South Carolina church I attended as a child for that!  God's Word is sufficient, and what it says, I believe.  But I must also obey its commands, which include being ready to offer a defense for the hope I have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).  Nothing has helped me do this more effectively like my relationships with those in other faiths.

3. Our Call is Greater than to simply "bring the Gospel."  We must also bring the Kingdom.  Jesus put it this way in the Sermon on the Mount: "Let your light so shine before men that they see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."  The goal here is clear: give people a tangible picture of what God is like so they will pursue Him personally, and through Christ bring Him the glory He deserves.  And that comes about by good works that people can "see."  That word in this context refers to more than just one's physical eyes.  It communicates a type of comprehension--a new view of God they never had before that comes as a result of watching followers of Jesus bring glimpses of His Kingdom.

I grew up hearing that the Kingdom of God was all future.  I was taught we didn't need to worry about the Kingdom.  We just needed to get as many people saved as possible before the end came, and God would bring that future Kingdom in His own way.  In 22 years of ministry I've seen that theological approach produce some very harmful consequences to our clear mission.  Personally, I'm still premilennial.  But as I read the New Testament, it becomes clear that the Kingdom of God isn't merely future.  It's also right here, right now.  It is among us.  It is within us.  And though I don't believe its final consummation will be realized until we literally see Jesus, He is still Lord over the whole earth and every part of it.  Right here, right now!

As followers of Jesus, we give people a view of that Kingdom when we build relationships with those very different from us, and share the Gospel within the context of those unconditional friendships.  People see the Kingdom of God when Christians relieve poverty, contend for justice, adopt orphans, set captives free, build schools and hospitals (and not just the kind where only our own tribe is welcome!), and even take out our neighbors trash!  All of this starts with the building of relationships.  And meetings like this one are a great place to get that started.

4. Understanding is essential for effective proclamation.   Why would we want to hear from Muslims?  We can know what they believe by simply reading the Koran, right?  Wrong!  Personally, I've never found lecturing someone about what they "really" believe to be helpful to a conversation.  I may think they are wrong.  I may see inconsistencies between what someone tells me they believe compared to what I have read in their authority source.  But if I want to interact with others, I have to deal with them as they come to me, and learn directly from them why they believe what they believe. Jesus didn't say "If you tear down and trash other religions, I will draw all people to myself!"  What John 12:32 actually says is "If I be lifted up, I will draw all people to myself!"  At the end of the day, only one question matters, and only one question has eternal consequences:  Who is Jesus?  Getting to that question, and earning an audience that allows me to answer it in confident humility requires listening and understanding.  I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has no equal.  So why on earth would I be afraid of bringing it with me to a platform that involves the exchange of ideas?  Best I can tell, that's exactly what was going on in Acts 17.

This Sunday, the world comes together at a small Baptist church in Glenwood Maryland.  There will be food, childcare, and the opportunity to interact with people created in the image of God--people we believe Jesus died to save.  I hope you will join us!  And currently, there is still more room, so register here:

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