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Faith column: A Baptist preacher learns about other faiths

May 1, 2010

As of this morning when I woke up and saw a post on my Facebook wall, I am no longer happy  with I realized I missed an opportunity with this faith column (even though I really enjoyed covering it). This is the Neighboring Faiths series at Hillcrest Baptist Church. Pastor Tom Goodman invited four men from different faiths to talk to his congregation via an interview conducted by Goodman.

On my FB page, I found Goodman had posted a link to his blog with reaction to the column. He said he did share the Gospel with the guests and that the column says he didn’t. Sigh. I guess I should have added more to that section about the kind of Christians who embrace other faiths and the kind who see other faith groups as people who must immediately be proselytized to. I should have said that in these interviews Goodman mentions how a particular belief in Judaism or Islam differs from the Christian Bible or whatever. Double sigh. This required a bit more nuance. Yes, Goodman and his flock want to share the Gospel. They’re Southern Baptists for Pete’s sake. But I was trying to show that they weren’t pouncing on people. They were taking their time to learn about them before doing the big official Jesus pitch.

I think I need a vacation. Vacations are too hard with a 15-month-old. Make that a spa day while Daddy stays home with toddler.

Anyway, here’s the full text of the column.

Baptist church gets crash course in other faiths

When Pastor Tom Goodman, a self-described conservative Christian, told me his plans to invite non-Christian clergy to his church to explain their religions, I was surprised. And intrigued. I knew plenty of Christians who invited leaders of other faiths to address their congregations. But interfaith dialogue wasn’t exactly standard fare at the Southern Baptist churches I’ve covered throughout the years.

The Neighboring Faiths series at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Northwest Austin began April 11 and has included conversations with Rabbi Neil Blumofe of Congregation Agudas Achim; Imam Islam Mossaad of North Austin Muslim Community Center and Girish Chaitanya, a Hindu priest at Chinmaya Mission. The last conversation will be Sunday at 5:30 p.m. with Zen Buddhist priest David Zuniga.

For Goodman, who has led Hillcrest for seven years, learning about other religions was crucial to being a good neighbor and ultimately a good Christian. In a city as diverse as Austin, members of his church are likely to work with Hindus, live next door to Muslims and coach soccer alongside Jewish parents.

In creating the series, Goodman, 48, said he hoped to fulfill a two-fold, Scripture-based conviction: “We’re to be good neighbors in a diverse community, and we’re to share our faith perspective in a diverse community. And both of those require understanding first.”

People of faith don’t always agree on the best way to do that.

I’ve known ministers who view the world’s faiths simply as different paths up the same mountain. They’re open to the idea of multiple truths and would never dream of proselytizing to non-Christians.

I’ve known other ministers who see interaction with non-Christians as a must-witness-for-Christ situation. To them, not sharing the Gospel with a Muslim or Hindu is a missed opportunity.

Neither approach suited Goodman. He doesn’t want to water down the world’s religions to what he calls the lowest common denominator. That would ignore the complexities and critical differences among the various belief systems.

And though his Christian faith calls him to evangelize, he believes it’s important to first try to understand what people believe. If he doesn’t listen to their perspective, he said, why should he expect them to listen to his?

Before the series, he spent hours talking with Blumofe, Mossaad, Chaitanya and Zuniga. He visited their houses of worship and studied their religions. He looked for similarities — he found more than one might expect between Christianity and Islam — but he also explored the differences.

Limited time proved to be biggest frustration for Goodman and his congregation. An hour and 15-minute interview isn’t enough to go deep into any religion. Goodman was only half joking when he turned to Blumofe on the first night and said, “How is Jewishness defined? Five minutes. Go.”

But it was a start.

Hundreds of people of all ages showed up to hear from these leaders. They listened and laughed. They heard prayers in Hebrew and Arabic and Sanskrit. They even shouted “Amen!” when Mossaad argued that the world would be a better place if Muslims, Jews and Christians truly practiced their scriptures.

The discussions inspired Hillcrest member Melissa McKanna, a 33-year-old mother of two who said she’s been discouraged in the past by the combative tone of religious discussions online.

For some church members, the series provided a first glimpse into other faiths. Others had explored, even dabbled in, the religions represented.

Erin Waldo, 38, who spent her 20s trying to piece together a belief system from various religions and philosophies, said she experienced an epiphany during the series. “Instead of solely seeing the parts that make up each of these faiths, I now see the whole, and I have come to realize that that pieced-together philosophy that I created for myself in a way denigrated each of the faiths that I picked and chose from,” she said.

Jim Steed, a 67-year-old retired lawyer, said that in his previous interfaith experiences, he found leaders tried to equate religious tolerance with religious agreement.

“In my opinion, Tom Goodman’s approach has been more balanced by incorporating at least some discussion of the differing truth claims espoused by each religion,” he said. “The conversations have been respectful without requiring anyone to compromise his beliefs.”

To be sure, Goodman believes the truth is found in Jesus. His newly formed friendships with people from different faiths haven’t altered his convictions. But this approach to interfaith understanding, he said, has reinforced another belief: “I think Christians can hold to the faith of our fathers and learn about the faith of our neighbors at the same time.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2010 10:56 am

    It was a great article, and I’m so grateful for your role in getting me connected with Neil, Islam, Girish (through Harish), and David. And I tracked with what you were saying in the piece. In linking to the story thru FB and my blog, though, I wanted to ensure that others tracked with it, too. You’re a treasure to Austin and I’m so glad to be in your list of friends!

    • eeflynn permalink*
      May 1, 2010 11:11 am

      Thanks, Tom. I just wish I could have tweaked that one paragraph. The idea of seeing these faiths through a Christian lens was critical, and I wanted to convey that. And then somehow it didn’t come across the way I meant for it to. I remember talking to a minister who had changed his approach to evangelism (he wanted to live it more than talk it so he made some radical changes in his life). And one of the biggest changes was how he interacted with non-Christians. He said that in the past if he hadn’t shared the Gospel with someone within the first 15 minutes of the conversation, he would feel like a failure. But now he says the first thing he wants to do is build a relationship with someone, get to know who they are and where they’re coming from. Which is what I saw you doing. It wasn’t that you weren’t going to share the Gospel, it’s just that you weren’t going to pounce on your guests and try to convert them on the spot.

      Anyway, the little things matter, and I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not explaining that better. But again, it was so much fun to cover, and I’m hearing some really positive feedback about the series.


  1. Reflections on post-9/11 interfaith dialogue in preparation for this week’s panel | The Grand Scheme

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