We all engage with people of other faiths and worldviews — the real question is whether or not we're doing a good or bad job being a witness to Christ. Engaging badly and leaving a bad taste in someone's mouth about Christ is not what Jesus calls us to. Not engaging with people of other faiths at all ... is also engaging badly. We want to help evangelicals engage well with people of other faiths and make Jesus look good.
Many churches are not yet aware of the demographic shifts happening in their cities and neighborhoods. The U.S. was once a predominantly White Christian country, but fewer than half of Americans (45 percent) identify as this today, while only 30% identify as white and Protestant according to the Public Religion Research Institute. On the contrary, religious diversity in America is here and it is growing. As of 2014 there were approximately 19 million people in America belonging to non-Christian faiths, while 23 million identified as atheist or agnostic (Pew Research). The Muslim population in America has continued to grow at a rate of roughly 100,000 per year, and by 2050, it is projected to reach 8.1 million, or 2.1% of the nation's total population — that's twice what it is today. Since Pew Research surveyed American adults in 2014, more adults now know a Muslim, while less adults now know an evangelical. Finally, the youngest religious groups in America are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups. At least one-third of Muslims (42%), Hindus (36%), and Buddhists (35%) are under the age of 30. This is America's next generation.
We tend to think about society as a realm of no faith, where Christian belief and heritage has been abandoned. This may have been true 30 years ago, but now more than ever North American societies are multi-religious — host to millions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, and other groups that are growing quickly. A lot has changed, and we must consider how these changes should impact our lives of faith. The fact that the issue of how to engage other religions is not on the radar of other churches, in our opinion, is simply a lack of knowledge about these changes. It is only a matter of time before this becomes the issue all churches are grappling with. We want to help and speed this crucial learning for the sake of our witness and so that we do not make public mistakes — making Jesus look bad in public.
We have found that evangelical college students are especially eager to build meaningful relationships with people of other faiths and advocate for their welfare. Take for example when students from Wheaton College asked evangelical leaders in an open letter to condemn the inflammatory rhetoric of Jerry Falwell Jr. toward Muslims. "In our country and in the evangelical community, fear has become a driving motivator which has led to stigmatization, acts of aggression, and a push for public policy that targets and alienates the Muslim population," the students wrote, adding, "We desire to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, supporting the shared principles of justice, well-being and compassion." National surveys have confirmed that young evangelicals are more appreciative of their Muslim neighbors than their elders. One of those surveys discovered that 25% of incoming evangelical students have at least one close friend that is Muslim!
We want to give these students an outlet to demonstrate their love for Christ and their heart for Muslims in the public square. We have launched a fellows program for both undergraduate and graduate students to receive mentorship from evangelical leaders, professional development opportunities, and up to $1500 seed funding to launch an initiative that brings Christians and Muslims together. To date, three dozen students from across the country have already completed or started applications. Many of these students have told us that the opportunity is a God-send, and that they have seen nothing else like it.
For as many young evangelicals that have embraced our cause, there have been older evangelicals who are skeptical about it. The questions we have received the most are, "Is your organization anti-evangelism?" and "Are you trying to make evangelicals more liberal in faith?" We do no think this is true, or intend it to be true. We don't want to make evangelism, or sharing our faith, any less important. We don't want to diminish the centrality of Scripture or its inerrancy; we continue to be inspired by the Parable of the Good Samaritan and Paul's engagement with the Athens in Acts 17. What we want to do is say is that our society is changing, and the way we engage with it can, as always, be sharpened. We want to obey the words of Paul who told the Colossians, "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (4:6; ESV).
When it comes to engaging with people of other faiths, we take Paul's words to mean doing our homework on other faiths rather than spreading caricatures, being a good friend who speaks the truth and being a true friend who loves unconditionally, and being more hospitable in our homes, neighborhoods, and churches. We should also take seriously threats against their religious freedom as threats against our own. If it is true that society is disposing of religion as much as we fear, than people of other faiths will be our friends in reclaiming it, not our enemies. If there is to be a future where evangelicals are known as the most loving and hospitable members of American society, it will be because we called people of other faiths our friends.