(Photo: The Christian Post)
WASHINGTON – When Bob Roberts meets with Muslims around the world, he is always introduced as an evangelical Christian or a Baptist pastor from Texas.
He is upfront and transparent about who he is and what he believes, he says.
"At the end of the day for me as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, ... I believe Jesus was God, I literally believe that he went to the cross, he died and was resurrected. I can't compromise on that," he said Thursday at a forum on evangelicals and Muslims.
Pastor of Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, Roberts has been working with Muslims for eight years now. And it's been eight years since he stopped fearing Muslims and started building relationships with those he knew very little about.
While working in Afghanistan on humanitarian projects he realized evangelicals lacked the "people to people diplomacy" that former president Dwight Eisenhower promoted.
"Literally, as an evangelical we're great at preaching all this stuff but we never talk to the people that we want to communicate with," he told The Christian Post ahead of the Global Leadership Forum's "Evangelicals & Muslims: Perspectives on Mission & Partnership" event, held at Georgetown University.
"I think what we've done is we're trying to speak into cultures, people's lives, and we don't know them. We don't understand them. We have no relationships with them. I think we need to spend time to get to know people, to serve them, and as they ask questions they [may] want to follow Christ, they may not."
Though he might not directly preach the Gospel, he found many of the Muslims and imams he has worked with asking "tons of questions" about Christianity, such as why Christians believe Christ was raised from the cross and what difference that makes.
Roberts, 52, goes by the little saying: "We serve not to convert; we serve because we're converted."
He explained, "The whole idea behind that is people only accept God because he's God, not because we're trying to bribe them with the Gospel. So God does the saving anyhow."
He's a big believer in the Great Commission and his church has started over 130 new churches. At the same time, he believes many Christians have adopted a "closed" faith system in which they are fearful of "the other" and have built up walls.
"If you don't believe like me, if you don't practice like me, then you're not right with me," he said, describing the closed system. "This kind of faith isn’t faith at all – it’s walls that isolate us based on our own criteria. It’s a system that says who we let into our circle and who we don't."
For Roberts, who grew up in deep east Texas as a very conservative, fundamental Christian, faith causes him to reach out to Muslims, Jews and those of other religions rather than build walls.
"If anything, it's opened me up to the whole world to see the potential of what God wants to do," he said.
"If we isolate ourselves in fear and don't build relationships and look upon people with suspicion we’re setting ourselves up for a horrible future," he noted.
Earlier this year, the Texas pastor drew wide attention – some critical – from fellow evangelicals when he invited Muslims and Jews to join Sunday morning worship at his megachurch. He and some from his congregation had already visited the Islamic Center of Irving and the Temple Shalom of North Dallas that weekend. The purpose was to foster understanding of the core convictions of each faith while also being honest about their differences.
The idea was born out of a realization that though he was building relationships overseas, he wasn't doing anything of the sort on his home turf where the Muslim population is growing. Moreover, he wanted to bring the experience and understanding to the average worshipper in the pews rather than limit it to religious leaders. Today the three faith groups in Texas continue to visit one another's houses of worship and work on community service projects together.
When describing the efforts, Roberts rejected the term "interfaith" since that would imply dumbing down one's faith to get along with those of other religious traditions. He called it "multifaith" where participants hold on to and do not compromise on what they believe truth is.
It's the kind of relationship that Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, supports.
"Each religion has its own dogma that separates it from other religions," he said at the forum Thursday. "And I believe we need to respect those dogmas that separate us from one another."
"Uniformity is about 'let us put all of these religions in a pot and make them a new religion.' This is not what I'm about. This is not what God wants and I believe this is not what is good for humanity," he stressed. "We need to unite by means of finding ways to work with another, not by means of making Judaism, Christianity and Islam look something different other than what it is."
Several Christian pastors from around the country have expressed interest in Roberts' multifaith platform. Roberts is currently mentoring a group of young pastors of megachurches to try to help them understand how to relate to Muslims and Jews.
Ultimately, Roberts underscored that the goal of the multifaith efforts is to glorify God.
"I know that's Augustinian but here’s the point: if I glorify God and there's a different picture of what a Christian looks like, many people want to follow that God. If I glorify God then maybe not only my people follow Christ but in the meantime there may be some tensions that are brought down and we can save a few guys and gals from having to fight in wars. I want to please Him in all that I do," he explained. "Here's the thing, I can't save anyone but I can live the Gospel and I can naturally share the Gospel so if I'm naturally living and sharing the Gospel, everything that needs to happen will happen."
Roberts will be hosting an event, called the Global Faith Forum, in November that will feature Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, Buddhist and Hindu speakers. The theme of the event is shifting from a "conversation among ourselves to a conversation with others," he said.