The Evangelism Project

This round of Experimental Collectives at Vintage Fellowship have been focusing on the idea of purpose. The way of Jesus invites us to realize that there is a much bigger world out there than we are used to seeing. So many of us spend all of our focus and energy on ourselves – what we are doing, what we want, what our needs are. Jesus modeled a much different life, a life that focused on the presence and perspective of others. As long as we live life selfishly, we’ll never find our purpose for living.

To get a better understanding of the other people around me and in my area, I joined the Evangelism Project collective. As a group, we visited gatherings at four other faith communities. We went to a Torah study at a Jewish synagogue, a vespers service at an Orthodox church, a Hindu temple, and a Muslim mosque (links below). The name “Evangelism Project” was tongue-in-cheek. We did not go to convert, argue, or protest. We went to watch and listen, to understand.  

evangelism project experimental collective - temple shalom

On Their Own Terms

Every time that I have learned about other faith traditions or religions, it has been on Christian terms. It has been in a Sunday school class or in a Bible college and seminary course or in a Christian book about apologetics. Without exception, it has been Christians explaining to me what non-Christians believe. Always through the grid of we-are-right-and-they-are-wrong. Always with the purpose of learning how to convince them that they are wrong. Always with the goal of conversion.

Never for the purpose of understanding. Never on their own terms. Never on their own turf.

One of the great things about this experiment was that we were going to be on their turf. We were the ones who were going to be uncomfortable. We were the ones who wouldn’t know what was coming next. It is a humbling thing to intentionally be uncomfortable. If James is correct, when we humble ourselves, God shows up. I think God showed up in unexpected (for me) places through this experiment.

And, let me just make a side comment about their own turf. In each place we gathered, I was amazed by the engaging architecture or decor. Creativity and beauty reflect the image of God, and I was able to see that image in unique ways in each of the locations where we met.

evangelism project experimental collective - st nicholas orthodox church

Warm Hospitality

I can honestly say that I did not enjoy every minute of every experience we had. The Torah study at the synagogue went for nearly three hours. The liturgy at the St. Nicolas was spoken so quickly that I often had no idea what was being said. Sitting on the floor at the Hindu temple was uncomfortable. And both the Hindu and the Muslim services had large parts of them that were not in English, making it difficult for me to know what was happening.

Some of the gatherings themselves were more welcoming and accessible than others. However, without exception, everywhere we went, we met warm and hospitable people. We were not treated with suspicion. We were warmly greeted. People spent time explaining to us what was going on, what the beliefs underlying the practices were, and how we could best observe and participate. This warm hospitality has led to the possibility of new friendships. In the next couple of weeks, I’ve got plans to get together with the Orthodox father and the Muslim imam.

evangelism project experimental collective - hindu temple

Strong, Kind Christian Identity

While this experimental collective has been going on, I also read Brian McLaren’s new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (I’ll be posting a review of it tomorrow as a part of Evangelism Week.) In the book, Brian calls for us to have a strong, kind Christian identity.

It’s completely acceptable for me to be a Christian. My life is devoted to Jesus. I revere the Bible, Old and New Testaments, as the word of God. I believe in the sacraments, in church, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. And I don’t have to apologize for this. Each time that I came home from one of the gatherings, I would say the same thing to Vanessa, “I don’t think I’m going to convert.” The story of Jesus is the story that resonates with me. It is the story in which I find myself.

I think that many Christians are scared to engage in the kind of experiment we did because they are afraid that their own faith won’t be able to hold up. They are afraid of being exposed to something that shatters their carefully constructed world. I think this fear may be unfounded. I am no less a Christian – and neither is my 11-year-old son who went with me to every service – than I was when I started. In fact, I think my faith is stronger because of this experiment.

evangelism project experimental collective - islamic center

And, I think I am more prepared to be kind. Just because I am strongly Christian in my identity doesn’t mean that I need to be threatened by others. And maybe more importantly, I have no reason to be unkind to others. Benevolence, understanding, patience, listening – these are all characteristics that need to be part and parcel of what it means to be Christian. These need to be my posture toward others.

Hatred comes from fear. Fear comes from the unknown. The unknown is what I don’t understand. This collective has been a journey of understanding. The understanding I’ve gained means I  don’t have to be afraid of the other. In fact, I can love the other. And that is evangelism.

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Here are links to the faith communities that welcomed us over the past month:

Temple Shalom of Northwest Arkansas

St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Christian Church

Hindu Temple of Northwest Arkansas

Islamic Center of Northwest Arkansas

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Are you a Christian who has visited other faith traditions? What have your experiences been like? We’d like to hear your story!

 

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  • this is great. thankx for sharing Robb. exciting and life-growing experience – in the middle of Brian’s book and loved some, didn’t like some and am not sure about some… but the idea of not having to apologise and of being kind is an easy one… for God so loved the world… keep on! [love that you took your son with!]

    • rryerse

      Thanks, Brett. Appreciate the kind words. Sounds like you’re having the experience with Brian’s book that most of us have with every book we read. Hold on to the good. Don’t sweat the stuff that doesn’t resonate with you.