- (Photo: Northwood Church)
Texas pastor Bob Roberts, Jr., is shattering the isolationist view that has kept many evangelicals in a bubble and out of touch with a globalized world.
Now more than ever, Christians in the United States are "more ignorant and ... more isolated than probably any group in all of Christianity," said Roberts, pastor of Northwood Church.
Yet, the time has come when fulfilling the Great Commission can no longer mean solely sending missionaries to the other side of the world, and paying them at that; when Christians should no longer gather among themselves to talk about what they believe and what's wrong with everybody else; and when Christians can no longer ignore relating to people of other faiths, especially with many residing next door, the Baptist pastor indicated.
But he understands why many Christians – whom he feels are "cocooned" – are hesitant to take as bold an approach as he has to talk with imams, rabbis and other religious leaders, let alone befriend them and learn from them.
"There's a lot of fear that the world is globalizing and if I get exposed to that, then what happens if my kids don't stay Christian or somebody starts questioning things," he told The Christian Post. "I think insecurity is a huge thing."
But he's trying to eradicate that fear among evangelicals. And so far, he's been successful for the most part.
Just this past weekend, Roberts held his first Global Faith Forum in Texas which drew more people than he expected, considering he didn't have the budget to advertise the event. At least 900 people showed up for the three-day forum that featured speakers from Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and other religious and nonreligious backgrounds. The diversity was also reflected among attendees, though most were Christians.
The three-day forum was more about conversations and understanding one another than about theological debates.
Since then, Roberts has been swamped with emails and calls from participants who say the event has made them rethink how they see the world and how they reach out to others.
"Pastors who were here were just blown away," Roberts said. "They were just going on and on about even how they write their blogs, how they write their books, how they realize that they’ve just been speaking about Christianity in the little silo of American evangelicalism, even in how they view unchurched people."
Church planters who attended also said the forum would have a profound impact on how they start new churches.
But not all participants were enthusiastic.
Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, recorded that one prominent evangelical refused to worship with Muslims and Jews when they were singing the playful children's song "Father Abraham."
"I just couldn't decide if singing that song with Muslims and Jews constituted joint worship, and I'm not convinced we can worship together," the evangelical told Galli.
To that, Roberts responded, "What if Billy Graham had that idea? 'I can't worship at my crusades. There are non-Christians here.’ Where would we be? That’s absurd.
"What about all the immoral people that show up at my church Sunday morning. I don’t know who’s sleeping around, or doing God knows what. But I still find God. Is the focus of my worship who’s standing beside me?"
Addressing some of the more traditional or "isolationist evangelicals," the Texas pastor made it clear that nobody at the event compromised what they believed in. It was a multifaith forum and not an interfaith one, he has stressed. Roberts unapologetically declared the Bible as the word of God, Jesus as God in the flesh, and Jesus as the only way to heaven during the event.
Os Guinness, a well-known evangelical author and speaker, expressed appreciation for Roberts' rare vision and said it even coincides with what he's trying to accomplish.
"So many people think of the other religions either in terms of conflict or evangelism solely or interfaith dialogue," he told Patheos. "I think we have a vision here which is different."
"The idea of interfaith dialogue – that there's a lowest common denominator unity and if we talk long enough we'll all agree – is wrong," he added. "Our differences are deep and irreducible.
"My own vision is of a civil public square which is a political framework of rights, responsibilities and respect within which we're free to be faithful to our own faith and yet know how to engage with others peacefully, civilly, persuasively and so on."
"I know that's [the] vision here at Northwood, which is why I'm so delighted to cooperate because it's a relatively rare vision."
Apologetics without self-righteousness
Roberts believes that while engaging with people of other faiths, the Christian can simultaneously strengthen his or her own faith.
This past year alone, after making friends with Muslims and Jews in his city and inviting them to worship services, the pastor said he has preached more theology than he ever has in the history of his church (Northwood was founded by Roberts in 1985).
With Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, communists and atheists visiting the church at various times, Roberts said "it demands that I make sure that I'm dealing with the Scripture, that I'm hitting the core theological issues and not just stating what we believe but why do we believe it."
"I think in the world of the future, theology's going to be far more important," he commented. "I think it can make you far stronger."
And by theology he means core issues that most people outside the Christian faith are curious about – including the Trinity and the divine and human nature of Christ – not just small Bible studies that teach a couple of morals.
"We ignore huge doctrines in the church like the trinity, the divinity of Christ, or salvation, how a person accepts Christ, or evangelism, how do you share your faith," he lamented. "I think we are living in an age where we need apologists for the Gospel like never before in the history of Christianity. But we are not producing them."
"And the apologists that we do have frankly are approaching it from a winner take all and not giving gracious answers," he observed. "It’s from a position of arrogance, not humility, it’s from a position of self-righteousness, not from a position of we’re learning together."
Roberts says the kind of apologist Christians need to raise is one who is gracious while intellectually and academically honest, and who doesn't necessarily "fight for the faith."
He pointed to author Millard Erickson, who wrote Making Sense of the Trinity, as an example.
Rather than "trashing Muslims" and coming from a position of arrogance, Erickson went straight to the Quran and laid out what the Prophet Muhammad said and what was said about Jesus.
"Erickson’s position was, Muhammad was not necessarily saying there wasn’t a Trinity, he was saying there were not three gods," Roberts summarized.
"That's the kind of apologetics we have to have," he stressed. "I think to contend is to stand up for it, but I don’t have to slug anybody. I’ve got the Holy Spirit."
The Three Amigos
Roberts hasn't decided yet about whether to continue the Global Faith Forum as an annual event. But he is expanding his efforts to get Christians in other cities to step out and engage "the other."
Pastors across the country are starting what he calls "The Three Amigos" where a pastor, an imam, and a rabbi (or any other leader from another faith) come together to get to know one another, do joint community service projects, and basically do life together.
He assured, "If you begin to reach out to others unlike you, and you take it a step further and begin to engage the world, you will become a tremendously well-rounded follower of Jesus."