By Ryan Sanders
Once a month, I walk into a room with a couple of Jews, a couple of Muslims, and a couple of Catholics.
I know; it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s not. It’s actually a very healthy and collegial group of faith leaders that advise our local newspaper on coverage of matters related to religion. Every time I walk into that room, I invite questions.
Should I deny invitations to such groups? Am I failing in my duty to proclaim the gospel truth? Is my participation somehow endorsing those other faiths, or a sort of coexist-bumper-sticker-inspired nullification of their differences?
My answer to those questions, as you may have guessed, is no. I think it’s beneficial for pastors to participate in interfaith dialogues. In fact, I think it’s crucial. Here’s why.
Dialogue Is Not Endorsement
Let’s dispense with this issue right away: Meeting with, talking with, praying with, and caring for people of other faiths is not the same as endorsing those faiths.
When you start to meet with Hindu leaders, you won’t suddenly become a polytheist. When you start to meet with Muslim leaders, they won’t think you no longer believe in the divinity of Jesus.
A Faithful Presence
What interfaith meetings will do, however, is give you a seat at the table where decisions get made about community projects and partnerships. They allow you to live out the admonitions of the prophet Jeremiah, which you’ve probably preached to your congregation before.
“This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive”(Jeremiah 29:4-7, CSB).
As many evangelical leaders have instructed us in recent years, including some in this very publication, it’s our duty to work for human flourishing in the midst of a culture that no longer shares our values. Participating in interfaith dialogues is a tangible expression of that very idea.
And it’s especially important for pastors and other church leaders who can easily slip into the “church bubble.”
In recent years, I’ve discovered that I encounter Jesus just as often in unexpected places as I do at church. Spiritual growth isn’t only something that happens in the context of pews and pulpits. It happens in cubicles, hospitals, living rooms, and buses. It also happens in interfaith meetings.
One of the most important characteristics of Jesus’ ministry, and one that is often lacking among American Christians, is empathy. In his classic study The Emotional Life Of Our Lord, theologian B.B. Warfield noted that the emotional condition most often attributed to Jesus in the gospel accounts is compassion. And since this is a virtue Jesus embodied, it is a virtue we can grow in.
In my conversations with leaders from other faiths, I’ve never faced a challenge that made me question the existence of one God or his incarnation in Jesus Christ. But I have faced perspectives that have changed the way I see the world. I’ve seen current events through others’ eyes, felt their pain and frustration at discrimination, validated those feelings, and accepted them as co-image bearers of the one true God.
Pastors should consider participating in interfaith groups—but not with a crusading mission to proselytize, nor with a passive acceptance of every worldview represented.
Instead, they should see interfaith communities as collections of image-bearing neighbors whom Jesus loves, as opportunities to seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which they exile, and as chances to bear witness to the one true God in a culture that has lost sight of Him.