Interview: Evangelical Pastor on Engaging Muslims and Gracious Apologetics

Ever since he began befriending leaders of other religious traditions overseas and in the United States, Bob Roberts, Jr., pastor of Northwood Church in Texas, says he has found himself growing tremendously in his own Christian faith and in his understanding of God.

Roberts wants to help other evangelicals move past the fear and ignorance that have kept them at a distance from Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and others. He did just that at a conference he hosted earlier this month that involved attendees and speakers of various faith traditions. In an interview with The Christian Post, he reflected on the conference, his thoughts on why he doesn't believe religions in and of themselves are not evil, and the need for a new breed of apologists who are less arrogant and more gracious.

CP: Was this the first time you held the Global Faith Forum?

Roberts: This is the first. First time we've ever done anything like this.

CP: Would you say that you introduced a sort of a paradigm to evangelicals who either ignored engaging with people of other faiths or just didn't know how to?

Roberts: I would say for the people who came, I introduced it to them. I'm not going to say I introduced it to America. But I would say to the people who came, yes, it was introduced to them. Pastors who were here were just blown away. 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. So I think for them … we happened to have a conference for young church planters two days beforehand. Most of them stayed over. And their response was this is going to have a profound impact on how I start my church.

CP: Did you find that people are mainly ignoring engaging with people of other faiths or is it that they don't know how to or that they don't have the courage to?

Roberts: I think it's two things. Number one, it's ignorance. And it's fear. Some people are completely ignorant as to the fact that we have 8 million Muslims, 4 million Jews, 20 million New Agers – people who have their own kinds of faith understandings … what I'm saying is I think most people are ignorant as to the fact that those people are here, what they think, how to talk to them, and so forth.

And I think there's a second group that really is driven by fear. They're afraid. I think they're fearful because they're not solid in their own faith, they're easily intimidated. I think some …. are afraid of being good friends with a Muslim because they think they can be a terrorist. 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. So I think insecurity is a huge thing.

CP: You mention in your blog that engaging people of other faiths can actually strengthen your faith, especially if the pastor encourages the whole congregation to do the same then they'd be even more prepared to give a clearer answer or a gracious answer.

Roberts: I believe that with all my heart. I probably preached more theology this year than I probably ever have in the history of our church because we have had so many Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Communists and atheists that have been here for different things. So it demands that I make sure that I'm dealing with the Scripture, that I'm hitting the core theological issues – what we believe – and not just stating what we believe but why do we believe it. What's the biblical basis, the philosophical basis, what difference does it make? I think in the world of the future, theology's going to be far more important. I think it can make you far stronger.

Now I do think we're going to have to make it simpler. Our theology is just way too complex. Theologians writing huge volumes for pastors and other theologians. We need theology for people in the pew, not just little Bible studies and a Bible story with a couple of morals. We need to be talking about the Trinity, we need to be talking about the divine and human nature of Christ, all of those things.

CP: And you have found that you yourself have been growing through this process?

Roberts: I've been growing big time. Every time somebody asks you a question, you have to think deep, now wait a minute, what do I really believe? When someone asks you a question you're about to answer what you believe. And so you're going to have to know why do I believe that, what's the authority for that, and how can I explain it in a way that they can understand it. Basically, 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. 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. 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 – here's what I can tell you so far that I've learned. We are living in an age and an opportunity for sharing our faith – call it evangelism whatever you want – like never before in the history of humanity and we are more ignorant and we are more isolated than probably any group in all of Christianity. I'm talking about here in America.

CP: So you're talking about a new breed of apologists where …. while most apologists are about defending the Christian faith let's say against atheists, you want a more gracious approach.

Roberts: I would say it's more gracious but I would say it's also more intellectually and academically honest. Let me give you an example. I've been studying the Trinity. I read a phenomenal essay Millard Erickson wrote two days ago on the Trinity and Muslims and how they understand that. It was brilliant. He went straight to the Quran. Instead of trashing Muslims and saying y'all don't understand this, you're just not smart enough to understand the Trinity. He was saying, here's what the Prophet Muhammad said, … here's what people were saying about Jesus in Saudi Arabia at that time, here's his response. Erickson's position was, Muhammad was not necessarily saying there wasn't a Trinity, he was saying there were not three gods. I went back and looked at all the passages in the Quran on that and he was right. It freaked me out. Man I wish I would've read that a week ago. I've already started emailing some of my Muslim friends and we're going back and forth on it. That's the kind of apologetics we have to have so that we know our faith and we're talking about it, but it's not fighting for the faith. I think to contend is to stand up for it, but I don't have to slug anybody. I've got the Holy Spirit.

CP: Do you feel you've successfully planted a seed where future generations of evangelicals will be impacted by what you started here?

Roberts: Here's what I honestly believe. The people who are going to run with this are in their mid to late 20s. It wasn't a bunch of old people at the conference. The speakers were older. You had tons of young people. Here's what's happening: this is a global conversation about faith. You can read what Mark Galli wrote in Christianity Today. He said … he liked it … and said it started something for the future but at the same time he didn't understand how it all connected. But I would say that Mark was looking at it through the lens of a traditional theological interfaith discussion. That's not what it was. It was global faith. So how do I work with the president of Disney in facilitating churches that are around the world that want to engage the city? How do I work with a communist? He doesn't believe anything about God but he knows I'm a Christian and we have a close relationship. Because the world has globalized the old theological conversations, the same truths are there but the players are not just the preachers talking about theology; it's the whole of society. It's not Christians gathering as Christians spouting what they believe and what's wrong with everybody else. We're having a conversation. It was being blogged, twittered. It's not a conversation that can be held in a closed context. Nothing is secret anymore, how do you speak of faith in an open way where there's one conversation.

CP: One of our readers on Christian Post wrote: "I think this movement is a bad idea. Christ warned us that we would be hated because of HIs name. We should never apologize for what we believe, and we do not need to be ashamed that many people reject evangelicals. They do not like our Master, and we should treat them with respect but remain salt and light to them." Can you respond to this?

Roberts: Well I think we were doing exactly that. If you listen to the lectures, I talk about how the Bible is the word of God, Jesus is God in the flesh, there's only one way to heaven. The person who wrote that, chances are, is an isolationist evangelical who has a very American worldview, who has no passion for the Great Commission unless it's on the other side of the world and then at that, that we're paying someone to do it. That is not our world anymore. Nobody compromised their faith but we were gracious. What we were saying, why are we not going to talk to people? We fund missionaries all over the world … what's this about, we have them right here at home and we're not going to talk to people about faith?

Here's the issue: I don't think we treat people very gracious who don't know Christ. Mark Galli started his article talking about this group who were doing Father Abraham – Christians, Muslims doing it. He said a prominent evangelical leader didn't want to do it because he didn't want to worship with other people. 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? (Apostle) Paul goes to synagogue, goes to Mars Hill, he's with government leaders, business leaders, faith leaders, everyday people. He doesn't have this institutional isolationist view. But this is why the younger generation's going to tackle it. They don't either. They're connected.

CP: I saw your interview on Patheos and you said "I don't view religions as righteous or evil. I view God as righteous and I view Satan as evil and I view people as righteous and evil. Religions are merely systems that are put together." Franklin Graham has said Islam is an evil and wicked religion. He got a lot of flak from the media for that statement but it seems you would get a lot of flak from conservative Christians for yours.

Roberts: I have no doubt about that. But how can I say what's righteous and what's evil in a system? I can't. Who made me God? I can say people are righteous and unrighteous and evil. That's easy. By your life, by your fruit, what's there. Why am I going to differentiate why one religion is evil but another is not? Because as a Christian, I believe Jesus is the only way so if I'm going to say that, then that's fine. Why am I going to differentiate which is evil? I don't view it as evil, I view it as light and darkness.

CP: You also stated "I've discovered that even thought I disagree with obviously the theological position of a Jew or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist I frankly have more in common with someone who is passionately seeking after God than I do with someone who is not." I thought that was an interesting statement. You seem to provide a whole new perspective to this dialogue and engaging with other faiths.

Roberts: That's very true. That's one of the reasons why I began to question this whole thing of a religion being evil. Let me give you an example. I have a friend who we had supper with two, three months ago and they became a Christian maybe 10 years ago. They love God. And they would go to their other religion and they were seeking God. I asked them, did you love God? And they told me with all my heart I loved God. It was until He revealed Himself to me, … in my heart I loved Him but I didn't know where He was. I asked Prince Turki one time, I asked I know you're a devout religious man, but I want to ask you a question, do you love God? And he looked at me and his eyes began to tear up and he said "Bob, with my very being." I don't think the man was lying to me. Do I agree with his theology? No. Do I want him to come to know Jesus like I know him? Yes. I told him that. I don't view that man as evil. I think that man is searching for God. And I don't have all the answers. I believe Jesus is the only way to God but I'm learning nonstop about who God is. I'm not the same person I was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 40 years ago. God is changing me.

CP: At the conference, you prayed with all the diverse speakers right before you went on the stage. How was that?

Roberts: To me, it was very powerful. I told them, look you don't have to pray or you can pray in your own tradition but I'm not denying my faith I do pray in the name of Jesus. I'm not trying to insult you. This is just who I am. I'll permit you to do what you want. But I need God's strength as we do this and I want to follow the Holy Spirit and if you all wouldn't be offended, if you all are okay with it, I really want to pray out loud for all of us. So we grabbed hands and I just prayed with all my heart. It was great.

CP: Are you planning to make this forum an annual event?

Roberts: I don't know. The response has been overwhelming not just from the people here. I'm getting swamped by people calling, asking that. I'm frustrated. We had no money for advertising. We did the best we could. Now everybody's calling about it like crazy.

We're going to do a thing called the Three Amigos. In every city we're going to get a pastor, an imam and a rabbi (or any other leader of another faith) together and we're going to start just getting to know one another, doing some community service projects.

And I'm not saying we're not going to do it next year. We'll be making a decision pretty quick.

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