An Interview with Bob Roberts
By Timothy Dalrymple
On a recent trip to Dallas, I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Roberts, pastor of NorthWood Church, and hearing his vision for "multifaith" ministry -- reaching out to leaders of other faiths and members of other faith groups, without abandoning his robustly evangelical theological convictions, in order to develop relationships and mutual understanding. The story of how God brought him to this multifaith ministry, and especially the remarkable forthcoming conference called the Global Faith Forum, was electrifying.
In a world where, increasingly, every neighborhood and every niche of our cities and towns are filled with people of many different faiths, and at a time when religious tensions threaten to pit nations and even religious groups violently against one another, it seemed to me that the Global Faith Forum was a pointer toward the kind of ministry evangelicals will have to commit to. Is this a part of the future of evangelical ministry around the world? I asked Pastor Roberts if he would be willing to share that story, and tell us more about the Global Faith forum.
You went through a long period of discerning what God desired for you and your church. Can you describe that journey? How did you become convinced that God wanted your church involved overseas?
Years ago, I wanted to get the biggest church I could get, as quickly as I could get it. But we went through a relocating process that took longer and cost more than we had anticipated. Families left the church. I was upset and broken over it. As I was praying in anguish one day, a question entered my mind: "Bob, when will Jesus be enough?"
I realized I had grown more concerned about the church than about the Christ who is the center of the church. I said, "Father, from this point forward, instead of being the biggest church in the area, we want to church the area. It's not about building my own empire; it's about serving your Kingdom." I began to read the Sermon on the Mount and discovered the Gospel of the Kingdom. It revolutionized my life.
A couple years later, as we were praying about what God would have us do globally, another question came to my mind. "What if the church were the missionary?" I had treated missions as a special vocation, as though it were reserved only for a few people called into the ministry. I realized that this vocation was given to the whole body of Christ, not just preachers and professional missionaries.
I asked our entire church to pray about where we should work together overseas. A member, who had recently converted from atheism, wanted to work in North Vietnam. He had been a pilot during the war; he was shot down three times, including one time in the north. So we began to work in Vietnam together. The members of the congregation use their talents, their experiences, their expertise, to serve the country. We built relationships with the leaders of the country -- and it exploded. Nearly half of the adult members of our church have gone to Vietnam.
What was it like doing ministry in Vietnam?
You can't do traditional missionary work there, but, if you're willing, you can work with the government and serve the people. I confess I was fearful of Vietnam at first; all I could think about were the Vietnam War and Walter Cronkite's daily casualty counts. I grew up afraid that one day I would just be another number in that count. I had always feared communists -- as a red-blooded American, I had thought they were our arch-enemies.
We went to Vietnam for a simple reason: because we had a sense that God wanted us there. Gradually I became friends with Vietnamese business leaders, government leaders, artists, educators, and so on. Last Sunday a Vietnamese diplomat was at our church, and last week in Washington, D.C., I attended the celebration of fifteen years of American relations with Vietnam. President Clinton, John Kerry, John McCain, and Ambassador Le Cong Phung all spoke. It was strange to be the only pastor there.
Yet now you're not only involved in Vietnam.
Right. I remember thinking, "Working with Vietnamese communists isn't so bad -- I'm just glad I didn't wind up working in the Middle East with all those scary Muslims!" Then through a series of events a few years later, after September 11th, we began to do volunteer work in Afghanistan. One relationship led to another and I became friends with many Islamic imams and government leaders around the world.