The Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) is intentionally involved in a range of interfaith activities.
Within Lebanon, this usually involves bringing together evangelical Christians with both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in several contexts.
For example, at our annual Middle East Consultation we invite respected Muslim clerics and scholars to share a different perspective to the particular theme we are discussing that year.
In addition, recently I helped lead an interfaith youth event involving six Sunni Muslims and six evangelical Christians and attended the Doha International Conference on Interfaith Dialogue, which involved more than 200 Christians, Muslims and Jews discussing interfaith initiatives among young people.
It has been a busy but inspiring month. However, I have also heard comments questioning the wisdom and rational behind such activities, primarily from evangelical Christians, who are nervous about participating in any form of “intentional interfaith activity.”
The issue seems to be the “intentional” discussion of faith, for within the Lebanese context it is more or less impossible not to have any interaction with those from a different faith.
Being willing to talk honestly and intentionally about faith with people from other religions does not make me theologically liberal – whatever that actually means.
Since when did listening to someone with a different view require the “watering down” of your own view? A humble willingness to listen is required, but watering down of your own faith? Surely not.
Many perceive interfaith dialogue to be about seeking some kind of mutually acceptable theological “middle ground,” where we can all agree on matters of doctrine and practice, have a cup of tea together and return home filled with warm fuzzy feelings.
However, when dialogue is with people who are serious about their faith, having the opportunity to share and learn about how their faith inspires people toward the worship of God, love for others and the betterment of communities. This is something we should all be seeking.
Another fear I have heard recently – particularly when talking about young people and those young in their faith participating in intentional interfaith activities – is that it will confuse them or damage their faith.
This may be true if the purpose of any such interfaith activity is to either seek converts or to win theological arguments.
It is also true that many teenagers still hold to a form of inherited faith and have yet to “own” their own theological beliefs and assertions.
However, if interfaith activity becomes about sharing how your own faith inspires you to live in God-honoring ways and listening to others sharing about how their faith inspires them in the same way, then perhaps there is less to fear.
In his book, “Allah,” Miroslav Volf suggests, “One of the defining challenges of our time is to find workable ways for Christians and Muslims to be true to their convictions about God and God’s commands, while living peacefully and constructively together under the same political roof.”
Ahmed, a young Muslim involved in the pilot of The Feast, an interfaith initiative in which IMES and World Vision Lebanon are currently involved, further makes the point by noting: “Most conflicts arise from stereotyping, a lack of knowledge and miscommunication. When people communicate, they discover that they are all humans, that they seek for safety and health and that they share an ambition for better life conditions.”
Finally, there is often concern that interfaith activities should not be used for the purpose of evangelism.
These are not appropriate moments for aggressive proselytization, for doing so often creates an environment of suspicion and division rather than trust.
However, surely the way we speak to people of other faiths about our own faith has the potential to be a positive or negative witness.
How we talk about our faith, and the faith of others, is as much a part of our witness as what we say about our faith.
In any such intentional interfaith activity, we are being given permission to model Christ to those who may not know him.
These opportunities also tend to be with people who are more likely to be interested in him, and in hearing about our experience of him.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is in a time of transition and upheaval, as is its church.
If the church in the MENA region is going to be the missional church we are called to be, surely there is a need to explore how we intentionally engage with those from other faith traditions within any possible setting.
So the question then becomes: How will we witness to those of other faiths in ways that demonstrate the character of the hospitable and welcoming Christ within an intentional interfaith setting?
Arthur Brown is the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @arthurandlou and IMES @IMESLebanon.
Arthur Brown is the BMS World Mission Regional Leader for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and former BMS youth and theological worker based in Lebanon, working with a Christian theological seminary regularly dialoguing with Islamic scholars.