What is interfaith engagement (engaging people of different faiths)? How is interfaith engagement different from ecumenical relations?
Interfaith engagement includes all intentional efforts to get to know people of different faiths, understand them, be hospitable to them, and show the love of Christ to them. It differs from Christian ecumenical relations which are attempts by different Christian traditions and denominations to understand each other and work together. In interfaith engagement we seek out our neighbors; in ecumenical work we seek out our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Why is it important for Reformed Christians to engage people of different faiths?
We are human before we are Christian and share with all human beings the dignity of being image bearers of God. Christians have a twofold calling: 1. We are to bear witness to the Gospel and call all people to be reconciled to God in Christ (Matt. 28:18-20; II Cor. 5: 18-21). 2. We are to “seek the peace and welfare of the city (and neighborhood, and nation) in which we live.” (Jeremiah 29:7). We cannot do either faithfully without honest engagement, especially today when people of different faiths live right next door.
How does the Bible inform our engagement with people of different faiths?
The Bible teaches (Lev. 19:33):
God the Creator is present to all people (Ps. 19; Ps. 104; Rom. 1, 2; Acts 14, 17)
All people respond to God’s revelation in creation (Rom. 1, 2; Acts 14, 17)
God’s people must resist all idolatry and false religion (Ex. 20: 3-4; I Peter 2:9-12)
God’s people are to show compassion, mercy, and justice to the “aliens” among them (Lev. 19:33)
God’s people are called to concern and prayer for the welfare of all people. (Jer. 29:7; Rom. 13:1-7; I Peter 2:13-17).
What is the CRC’s stance on interfaith engagement?
Synod 2010 added to the mandate of the Ecumenical Relations Committee by asking it to include interfaith dialogue as part of its work. The committee was renamed “Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations,” and has begun the process of compiling resources for church members interested in interfaith engagement, as well as thinking about how they might represent the CRC in interfaith dialogue.
The CRC recognizes that there is a clear distinction between ecumenical relations and interfaith dialogue (see the answer to question 1). A theological background for interfaith dialogue can be found in the document “Reformed Christian Engagement with People of Different Faiths.”
What is the relationship between evangelism and interfaith engagement?
Evangelism is the “announcing” or “preaching” or otherwise making publically known the “good news of Jesus Christ”. God’s Word incarnate in Jesus Christ has gone out and will not return to the Lord until it has accomplished the purpose for which he sent it. (Is. 55:1-13) Those who receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord live in community around the world across time. In some places in the world, Christians are a majority and in others places, Christians are a minority. Wherever Christians live, they live a new life in Jesus Christ, knowing they are saved eternally and knowing here in this world by the Holy Spirit they are being sanctified, that is, renewed, reformed, and transfigured in how they live in love with God and with their neighbors. Our lives in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, find evangelical expression in all that we feel, think, say, and do. This is the witness to which Jesus calls us and for which he has commissioned us (Mt 28:18-20). (For more detail, see Section II on Biblical Foundations for Reformed Christian Witness)
Interfaith engagement is an opportunity to learn about who others are, what their faith is, how their religious practice manifests and deepens their faith. In other words, interfaith engagement enables us to know others better and as we know them better, we are able, as we care for one another, to come together and work side by side towards common goals: eradicating hunger, ending war, sharing natural resources, making education available more fully and more completely, preserving the environment, and much more.
Called to give witness to Jesus Christ in all that we feel, think, say and do, we are always evangelizing, announcing the good news of Jesus Christ, in every moment of our lives, including interfaith engagement. There are many ways of doing this.
How does one evangelize in interfaith engagement? Perhaps the best way is to follow Jesus’ example: by the Holy Spirit, expressing love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23) as we get to know, love, and live with our neighbors of different faith. If by the Spirit, we truly live the fruits of the Spirit, our neighbors in various ways will be drawn to the light that we have not hidden under a bushel. (Mt 5:15)
Do we have to ignore our differences when we participate in interfaith engagement? Must we only focus on those things upon which we agree?
If we live by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, by God’s grace the fruits of the Spirit (see question 5) will find expression in our all our relations, including interfaith engagement. As in any relationship, we begin by discovering what we share in common. In time, as we get to know each other better by working side by side to solve shared challenges in our communities, trust grows and we are able to share deeper differences, especially as these differences have bearing upon our work for the shared good of the community. As we discover these differences and work through them in interfaith engagement, it is important to lean on God (his Word, his salvation in Christ, his loving faithfulness) and remain humble before God and others, for “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2Cor 4:7)
What makes our Christian faith unique/distinctive?
The answer here is simple: Jesus.
Consider the woman at the well (Jn 4:1-42) She comes to the well for water and Jesus asks for a drink. She responds, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” Her question acknowledges that there are religious differences between Jesus and her. But Jesus’ response is: “Do you know who is asking you for a drink? I am the living water, the gift of God, which you and all humanity seek.” She inquires: “Are you greater than our ancestral forefathers who gave us this well?” Jesus answers: “Yes, I am. Whoever drinks of the living water of God, shall have eternal life and never thirst again.” She responds, “Sir, please give me your living water, for I thirst.” When this story is told in China, Chinese people put themselves in the place of the Samaritan woman and learn that Jesus’, the living water of God, is greater than their Chinese ancestral forefathers. The same is true of persons in a South Indian village, a Kenyan village, a Peruvian village. Jesus comes with living water, with love, with comfort, with healing, with reconciliation, with covenant relationship with God and with others to any human being of an ancestral or religious heritage, on any highway or byway, at any well, who thirsts. Receiving Jesus as savior and lord is what makes us Christian. Through Jesus we enter into profoundly deep, personal, loving relationship with God and with neighbor and come to know who we truly are.
It is helpful, therefore, not to think of “being Christian” as merely one way of “being religious”, among many ways of being religious, each somehow “unique”. This modern perspective is not Biblical (see Section Two) and in particular here, it is not the perspective of the parable of the Samaritan woman at the well. Rather, the parable tells us that Jesus is the personal, incarnate gift of God himself, who comes to any person of any ancestral or religious heritage to offer the living water of profoundly deep, personal, loving relationship with God and neighbor. “For by grace, you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. “ (Eph 2: 8-9)
To engage with persons of different faith and practice, how can I learn more about their faith traditions?
Engaging with persons of different faith and practice does involve learning about their faith traditions. But in learning about faith traditions of other persons, it is important not to think of the learning process as simply reading about their “beliefs” which can be mentally compared with our “beliefs” and others’ “beliefs”. As Christians, we know that God, through the grace of Jesus Christ, has called us into deep, personal, loving relationship with God and with our neighbor. Our loving relationship with God and neighbor is a lived reality, an entire way of living, not merely a mental idea. So also the faith and practice of persons of different faith is a lived reality, an entire way of living, not merely a mental idea. Yes, ideas, stories, sacred writings are part of every religious way of living, and we can learn much about other faith traditions by hearing their stories, thinking about their ideas, and even reading their sacred writings. While this learning is valuable preparation, it cannot replace actual interfaith engagement with persons of different faith, for it is these persons who can best tell us the meaning of their practices.
There are many, many books on religion, in all its historical and global diversity. But rather than simply read alone about the faith of others, find ways to join or to start a church group to learn about a different faith tradition. Be in conversation with one another about what you are reading; watch and discuss together well-documented films on the faith and practice of others. If interested, a Christian study group may seek invitation from and travel together to places of worship that are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, where Christians can meet and get to know persons of different faith, perhaps share a meal together and discuss shared concerns.
As we take part in interfaith engagement, as Reformed Christians, we do well to remember the Bible tells us, and our daily living by the Holy Spirit in Christian community confirms, that God in Jesus Christ is calling to himself a people in love with God and in love with neighbor. Interfaith engagement, as in any relationship with other persons—whether with family members, friends, co-workers, teammates, or persons of other families, other districts, other businesses, other teams, other cultures—takes us into the very heart of what God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is doing with humanity, over which he is sovereign. So, as Reformed Christians, alive in Jesus Christ, in covenant relationship with God and neighbor, guided by the Holy Spirit, Biblically informed, and informed as well as about other faith traditions (through books, film, and personal conversations), we can surely go a good distance together in getting to know, love, and serve in community with our neighbors of different faith.
See question 10 for specific reading and viewing materials, which members of CRC churches have found helpful.
How can I begin to explore interfaith engagement? How could I get started?
The most direct way to begin is to meet and get to know people of different faith. They may be next-door neighbors, colleagues at work, people we meet in a store, or parents of children with whom our children play on a sports team. Informal conversations open doors to getting to know them as fellow citizens and people of a different faith.
As we get to know them we and they can share experiences (what “Reformed Christian Engagement with People of Different Faith” refers to as the interfaith engagement of life), we can also decide to collaborate on issues we and they recognize as important in our society (the interfaith engagement of action), although this often requires more formal organization by leaders of the various faith communities.
We can also attend interfaith activities at which specialists from Christian and different faith communities discuss similarities and divergences in the teachings of the respective faiths (the interfaith engagement of theological exchange) or the practice of them (the interfaith engagement of religious experience). These may be offered at nearby universities or colleges or may be sponsored by interfaith organizations.
In that regard, we can seek out local or regional interfaith organizations (to be found in both the USA and in Canada) and attend their meetings or events. Sunday school classes or adult education on world religions could be offered. Resources for practical “how-to” questions can be found in books, web-sites, or through interfaith organizations.
What are good resources for interfaith engagement?
The following links represent just some of the many available—and constantly growing—resources available to assist the Church in engaging our neighbors of other faiths. These particular resources were chosen because the members of the CRC’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee considered them among the best currently available, and the most in keeping with scriptural and theological foundations of the CRC. However, please be aware that a resource's inclusion here does not signify an endorsement of all its views—theological, political, or otherwise—by our denomination or the EIRC.
The National Council of Churches in the USA carefully recognizes the differences of opinion and perspective within the range of the Christian Church regarding interfaith engagement. Its interfaith resources page has sections on:
The Ecumenical Challenge
The Identity Challenge
The Missional Challenge
The Moral Challenge
The Theological Challenge
The Canadian Council of Churches prepared helpful guidelines for Christian leaders participating in religious ceremonies involving more than one faith tradition.
The CCC maintains an “Interfaith Resource Kit” on its website, with links to interfaith resources from many denominations.
The Roman Catholic Church has spent decades wrestling with interfaith engagement, and has made many significant contributions in this area. Some of their better-known documents are:
The Reformed Church in America has a long history of mission work in the Middle East and other regions dominated by Islam, and thus it is no surprise that they have some excellent resources on interfaith engagement with Muslims.
The “Advancing Ministry Among Muslims” committee of the CRCNA has compiled resources and curriculums to assist churches:
a. Group Curriculums:
Muslim-Christian Talking Points:
This 8-point topical series was produced by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Each Talking Point has a short reading followed by 3 or 4 group discussion questions. The content is well written, interesting and thoughtful. “These Talking Points have been formulated in such a way as to draw out inquiries and reflections that might otherwise go unattended in our relations with Christians and Muslims. They address real questions raised by Christians in varying communities. For the most part, the Talking Points are intended for discussion among all Christians, as part of our ongoing inquiry and attention to interfaith activity and encounter. And yet, inviting Muslim guests and contributors for discussion on these topics will add depth, interest and insight.” In addition to the Talking Points, there is a Walking Points portion that proposes ways Christians can listen to, care for and serve Muslims in their midst.
“20,000 Dialogues is a nationwide initiative that uses discussions about films to promote pluralism, dialogue, and civic engagement. It seeks to build greater understanding of Muslims through films and conversation. 20,000 Dialogues uses Unity Productions Foundation’s (UPF) award winning films and provides the materials people need to participate in dialogues that further the American ideals of inclusiveness and positive civic action.”
The 20,000 Dialogues films are very well done and each film has a well written and thought-provoking dialogue packet. The resources will spark good conversation between Muslims and Christians. The films and curriculum are produced from a secular pluralist perspective. This resource would work well for an informed and educated congregation that is ready for dialogue with Muslims.
Kateregga, Badru D. and David W. Shenk. A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. Herald Press: Scottdale, PA, 1997. This is a good introductory book about the basic concepts of Christianity and Islam (written by an adherent/expert from each faith). It displays a respectful and informative exchange of beliefs and provides a good framework for those involved in Muslim-Christian dialogue.
This book began with a letter entitled “A Common Word between Us and You” written and signed by Muslims leaders from around the world and published in The New York Times in 2007. It was an open letter to Christian leaders inviting cooperation as a step toward peace. That original letter and a collaborative Christian response, “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” both appear in this volume, as well as, subsequent commentary and dialogue between Muslim and Christian scholars addressing critical and frequently asked questions.
Peace Catalyst International promotes multi-dimensional reconciliation (with God, people, and creation) and focuses on two of the greatest areas of conflict in the world today – between Christians and Muslims and between the West and the Muslim world. They provide a number of services – speaking, consulting, facilitating dialogue, recruiting for peacemaking initiatives and facilitating cross-cultural peacemaking teams.