Barna Research Group recently reported that evangelical Christians are less likely than most to have friends of other religious beliefs. A whopping 91 percent of evangelicals said that their current friends are “mostly similar” to them when it comes to religious beliefs. However, this statistic wasn’t broken down by age or generation, which is critical to understanding how American evangelicals are changing.
Pew Research found that the younger an evangelical is, the more progressive they will likely be on a number of issues. Public Religion Research Institute discovered that younger white evangelicals (ages 18-39) are far more likely to say that American Muslims are an important part of the religious community in the U.S., and that they are comfortable with public displays of Muslim culture and religious expression, than those ages 40 and up.
We launched our organization, Neighborly Faith, when we were graduate students at Wheaton College in 2015. We were there during the saga between Wheaton College administration and Dr. Larycia Hawkins, and when Wheaton students penned an open letter in the Washington Post, condemning Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s inflammatory remarks about Muslims after the San Bernardino shootings. We saw a growing crop of evangelical college students who wanted to love their Muslim neighbors as themselves, but who were getting little guidance on how to do so from their elders.
Fortunately, in the last few years, we have discovered that there are in fact evangelical trailblazers who are modeling how to be a good neighbor to Muslims. Take Pastor Bob Roberts Jr., for example, who leads a Southern Baptist megachurch in Texas. For the last few years, he has devoted a significant portion of his time and energy to introducing evangelical pastors to Imams and encouraging them to build friendships.
We have also been inspired by the work of Fuller Theological Seminary professor Matthew Kaemingk, who has traveled to evangelical colleges across the U.S. to encourage a posture of hospitality toward Muslim immigrants. There are also 2018 books like Islam in North America:Loving Our Muslim Neighbors by Micah Fries and Keith Whitfield and The Dignity Revolution by Daniel Darling, each authored by evangelical thought leaders who are active in the lives of college students.
As soon as we detected an urgency to love Muslims coming from both evangelical students and established leaders, we sensed that the time was right to launch a program that brought the two together. That’s why we are launching a fellowship program in 2019 for evangelical college students who are eager to be leaders in the public square that exhibit a Christ-like neighborly love toward Muslims. The program will provide them with mentorship from evangelical leaders, professional development opportunities, a fellows retreat, and up to $1500 to launch an initiative that brings Christians and Muslims together or addresses Islamophobia in some way.
What makes our approach unique is that we are interested in helping students cultivate a public faith that is winsome in a religiously plural society that includes Muslims, yet also a faith that remains rooted in traditional faith commitments and an evangelical church. It grieves us when we hear from young evangelicals who felt they had no other choice than to break away from their faith commitments and their church because their love for people of other faiths was deemed “liberal” or “dangerous.” We have seen firsthand in our own lives that we can be concerned and actionable about the integrity of our public witness while remaining unashamed theological conservatives. We know that other young evangelicals are eager to strike the balance as well.
Our inspiration for this work varies between us. Kevin’s father faced insults as a child for being part of a Jewish family, which caused him to be skeptical of religion for most of his life. Chris spent significant time in the Middle East in 2012, where he realized that the fear he had for Muslims growing up was irrational. Both of us have been inspired by the hospitality and generosity we have received from our Muslim friends, as well as the bad habits we have seen percolate in evangelical communities when it comes to our approach to other faiths.
While there have been temptations to back out of our tradition, we are committed to leaning in. This is partly because of the promise of young evangelicals, who are poised to bring a fresh face to the public square. We are confident that investing in this work will produce a bountiful return for the evangelical community and the common good.