Ed Stetzer on … interfaith meetings

From CT:

Five years ago, I found myself sitting in an interfaith meeting. Gracious people from different religions and denominations had gathered at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s headquarters in Chicago to plan the ongoing work of congregational research. The goal of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership was to bring together participants from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, and Orthodox churches to research and compare our findings.

I was unsure whether I belonged at the meeting. In one session, the facilitator explained that the research should lead to cooperative resourcing to help all of our congregations. He suggested we could jointly create, publish, and distribute resources to help congregations in faith development and growth.

At the appropriate time, and with my best smile, I raised my hand and said something like this: “I appreciate the funding that allows us to survey our churches, and I think it is helpful to use similar questions and metrics for better research. But I am not here to form a partnership to help one another. I want to help the churches I serve, and part of the reason they exist is to convert some of you.”

I paused, smiled, and worked hard not to sound menacing (it was probably too late). Some participants in the room looked at me as if I had just uttered a string of profanities. Others nodded in agreement. Then the Muslim imam seated next to me said, in effect, “I feel the same way.”

Though the imam and I were in a minority in that group of predominantly liberal Protestants, we represented the movements among us that are actually growing in numbers. Both he and I believed in sharing and enlarging our faiths. We did not think we were worshiping the same God or gods, and we were not there under the pretense that we held the same beliefs. In other words, our goal was not merging faiths, combining beliefs, or even interfaith partnership.

And Stetzer proposes the following four practices:

  • Let each religion speak for itself.
  • Talk with and about individuals, not generic “faiths.”
  • Respect the sincerely held beliefs of people of other religions.
  • Grant each person the freedom to make his or her faith decisions.
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  • Pat Pope

    Wow, I can imagine it was like someone dropped a bomb in the room when he said that. I can understand his discomfort because while I respect various faiths, we ultimately come to a place where we have fundamental disagreements, although I probably wouldn’t tell them I was trying to convert them. In any event, there is always a tension for me with interfaith gatherings. I guess what it comes down to is the purpose of the gathering. If it’s on something generic as stated in his practices, I could probably go along with that. Anything else I would have trouble doing. But I applaud his bravery for what he said.

  • A professor with whom I’ve worked also frequents these type of interfaith gatherings. Although I suspect he is more liberal than Stetzer here (it’s hard not to cringe at the repeated insinuation that conservative churches are growing while liberal churches languish, from that last paragraph), he would very much agree with the rest of this post. We should feel free to state clearly and concisely where our faiths differ from those of others, while still working together toward common goals (fighting poverty, promoting civic engagement, civil dialogue generally, etc.)

  • Joshua Wooden

    In the right context, to a specific group, this is probably a much-needed commentary. But I wouldn’t show this to my conservative family, who already believes this, and would use this as an excuse to caricature and make fun of liberals. But I think that it is accurate and gets to the heart of the matter, however offensively.

  • My agreement with Ed is why I teach out of Prothero’s “God is not One”. It is amazing how many students, from the kids fresh out of high school to those 50+ cling to this universalist notion of religion that they have received from a culture that does not know how to deal with difference.

  • But I like the notion of interfaith fellowships which maintain difference while searching for ways to work together for societal good in a pluralistic framework (the whole while holding fast to each’s exclusivist view of their truth).

    We have to find a way to deal with difference without collapsing us into them or them into us or us and them into some third thing (the one mountaintop theory).

  • DRT

    I saw the Dalai Lama talk on this subject. He said that he thinks all of the major religions are capable of producing good people, but he is partial to his and encourages people to follow that.

    I like this view.

    And that is inherently what Ed said, he wants to convert them, the same thing that the Dalai Lama said. But what Ed did not say is that he does not think the other religions are valid, and that is a big difference.

    If your end times scenario says that all others will burn in hell, then it changes the way you relate to the world.

  • Fred

    I’d like Ed to come to the church I am currently attending (OPC) and give a talk. They won’t listen to me. 😉

  • Holly

    It is interesting to have friendships with people of other faiths – yes, devout people.

    They feel compelled to share their faith with me, they expect that I will share mine with them. We do so, respectfully and expectantly – if we are loyal to our faith it seems we MUST do so.

    And then we go back to the easy friendship level and carry on. Back to livin’ life.

    I think that if I have any influence on the theological “thinkings” of friends of other faiths, it will be because of something they see in my life and how I live, not necessarily because I gave them the schpiel.

    Although…my theology lain out before them so they can see it, examine it, think upon it is important (in my opinion, ) it is Jesus IN my life will be what makes the difference. He is the attractant, the woo-er, the prevenient grace giver.

  • DRT @ 6, yes you are correct that “If your end times scenario says that all others will burn in hell, then it changes the way you relate to the world.”

    In like manner, if your end times scenario is that everyone is your brother because of being created in the image of God and that Jesus will not fail to save anyone, then this too effects the way you relate to the world.

    I am much freer in sharing my faith in Christ because it is faith in Christ not only for my salvation, but for your salvation. And I always look for opportunities to share my faith in Christ.

  • Brian W

    I found it interesting that in the paper copy of CT Stetzer’s article is followed by Galli’s interview of Volf who argues that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, which Stetzer dismisses.

  • DRT

    Sherman#9, I just don’t think that Jesus would come and insist that we perform some religious work, like professing a faith in a name or something like that, to put us in good standing with god.

  • First, let me start by stating I am an ELCA pastor. As a part of one of these “liberal” traditions, I am proudly christian. I have found that the way of Jesus is the way for me. However, I find that Stetzer is consistently arrogant. I was a part of Stetzer “growing” tradition for my entire childhood, adolescents, and young adult life. I was first ordained in that tradition. Part of why I left seeking a new home was because of the absolutisms that flowed out… the “I’m in and your out” realities are exhausting. It seems to me historically that this sort of rhetoric is consistently unhelpful and unfruitful.

    Our small (growing) congregation also houses a Jewish synagogue we are proudly interfaith. In fact one of our longterm goals is to become a spiritual center for Encino Ca. We would love to house the three abrahamic faiths under one sacred space. Why? Because thats our community. Our local community has all three faiths deeply represented within a ten mile radius. Each of us are doing the same thing. We are striving to relate and engage the divine and our fellow humanity. Does this mean we sacrifice our individual beliefs, no of course not. But we find unity within our diversity.

    Imagine if people of different faiths could actually learn about one another, Would our understanding of God be broader, more profound, more holy? Would God break out of the boxes we have placed him in?

    When will we stop being a “NO” people?

  • Ben Wheaton


    We will stop being a “NO” people when there is nothing left to say “NO” to. This will be at the consummation of history, when Christ returns in glory and all men judged, and allotted to their appointed places, whether in eternal torment or eternal bliss.

    I think the God who you propose is a very narrow God indeed; one who must conform to your sentiments.

  • I listened to Volf speak on major points he makes in Allah: A Christian Response in Pennsylvania, last week. Although he did say that he believes we worship the same One God, he is careful to qualify that statement. (I just blogged on his talk, today, based on notes I took.) In Volf’s discussions with Muslims, they agree that we share a “Common Word” to love God and love neighbor. Questions of the differences we have in the orthodoxy of our religious understandings of Godself and salvation need not be divisive, if we choose to focus now on what he calls the horizontal mode of worship (loving our neighbor). I agree with Mark Baker-Wright (#2) that there is a lot we can share with one another across religions about how to build helpful, healthier, loving communities, while still holding on to the claims of our faith which appear “exclusive.”

    One major point Volf makes is this: our deeds reveal whom we worship. I, and many of us here at Jesus Creed I’d surmise, have far more in common with a devout Muslim committed to loving and helping her neighbors than I do with a self-ascribed Christian who gossips, mocks, slanders or demeans others based on religious affiliation, gender, race, nationality or ethnicity.

    In the quote above, ISTM Setzer seems to focus on the claims of exclusivity rather than trusting the love & truth of God to shine through us and our congregations. Do his 4 practices imply that we may not cooperate with other religions in our communities for common purposes? It seemed that way, to me. Isn’t that called “fortress faith”?

  • Lyn

    DRT #11 – you wrote: “Sherman#9, I just don’t think that Jesus would come and insist that we perform some religious work, like professing a faith in a name or something like that, to put us in good standing with god.”

    Um, maybe I’m not understanding you, but this is exactly what Jesus insists on. See John 6:29. Thoughts?

  • DRT

    Lyn#15, Jesus also said many other things that gain eternal life, salvation, or whatever you want to call it, like selling your things and giving to the poor. I don’t consider giving to the poor a religious work, it is an act of charity and emphathy toward others.

    Likewise, Jesus did on some occassions say “believe in me”, but given the fact that he was quite the deep person, he could mean that on many levels, including believe in what I believe, and believe in what I represent, and of course, believe in what I say.

    As a matter of fact, he explicity says that not everyone who calls him lord will have it made.

    So I think it is far from certain that someone would have to say they know Jesus.

  • DRT

    …follow on to my #16,

    But that is not to say that the quote in John is not correct, for I do believe that if someone puts their faith in good teachings of Jesus then they will be doing the work of god. Its just that this is not the only way.

  • John I.

    Though Jesus did say that one cannot deny him. So if one can possibly be saved even without a clear pronouncement about Jesus, one cannot be saved with a clear pronouncement against him (of course, one can always change one’s mind, as Peter did).