Evangelical and Muslim Clerics Meet to Find Common Ground

  • Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Northern Virginia, left, and Pastor Bob Roberts of NorthWood Church in Texas join a discussion during the opening dinner of the Alliance of Virtue Conference at the Washington Marriott Marquis on Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of Rodney Bailey.

The Washington Post
Thursday, February 08, 2018

Texas pastor Bob Roberts has traveled to Washington before for the National Prayer Breakfast, a Christian-organized networking event where evangelicals come to schmooze about topics including their shared goal of bringing people to Christ.

That was Roberts’ focus in the past. This year, he’ll attend with one of his closest current collaborators: An 85-year-old Islamic scholar visiting from Abu Dhabi.

Roberts and Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah attended the Thursday breakfast following an unusual gathering held during the previous three days: 400 faith leaders coming together to forge interreligious ties, work that has been common for many U.S. faith groups for decades but often has eluded one particular pair: Muslims and evangelicals.

White evangelicals have the most anti-Muslim views of any American faith group, polls show, and the meeting — timed so Bayyah could attend the huge prayer breakfast in Northwest Washington — reflects the urgency an increasing number of imams and pastors feel at a time when the world seems especially tribal and explosive.

The sight of a massive hotel ballroom of evangelical pastors and imams — as well a smattering of Jews and Catholics — brainstorming on how to build ties showed how the stable of people doing such work is building in recent years. As they met downstairs, upstairs the Marriott Marquis lobby TVs reported new proposed restrictions from the White House on Muslim immigrants.

“Evangelicals are making it much worse,” Roberts said of the negative views many Americans have of Islam. The pastor, a tall man with Southern drawl, a dapper suit and a salt and pepper beard, spoke in a busy hallway at the conference. “And pastors are worse than the people in the pews.”

Roberts lost hundreds of congregants in the early 2010s after he began his outreach, including bringing Muslims and Jews up on stage at his nondenominational megachurch, NorthWood, in Keller, Texas. He’d been urged by a Saudi prince he met while doing traditional mission work in the Middle East to focus on outreach in America. When he reached out to his first American imam, he “was scared to death,” he said.

NorthWood was labeled “a Muslim church.” The Southern Baptist graduate of two seminaries was accused by critics of being a “closet Muslim,” Roberts said.

Less than a decade later, Roberts has produced over 100 church planters, and his church has nearly 3,000 members. In 2014, he launched a program called “My Neighbor’s Keeper” that pulls together small groups of rabbis, imams and pastors, puts them through intensive group training, then requires they commit to working with, visiting and publicly defending one another. The initial plan was to do small groups in 10 cities over a decade, and this year alone the program has trained 20 groups. Without major funders they get space donated by random people: A hockey player in Phoenix lent his ranch one year. Then a Turkish-American organization provided its center in Washington.

“If I told evangelicals I have a plan to convert Muslims, they’d give me money, even if it was a bad plan. But if I say I just want to be friends with them...” his voice trails off and he shakes his head. “And Muslims are afraid evangelicals want to convert them.”

Of course they want to bring others to Christ, said Roberts and other pastors who have been trained through his program. But among evangelicals there has been a mobilizing, a growing — if still relatively small — number of leaders who are investing in learning more about Islam, making personal relationships and working to bring their congregations together.

Some of the reason for what conference attendees described as this quiet shift is cultural, some political and some theological. The idea that Christians shouldn’t wait for some future heavenly kingdom but instead view current life as the kingdom of God changes the willingness, even eagerness, to work with a broader circle of humanity.

“Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer — ‘Thy kingdom come’ — and when Jesus is defining that kingdom — ‘on Earth as it is in heaven.’ The guiding principle for Christian life is: How would I live my life if this was heaven today? I’d love my Muslim neighbor, my Jewish neighbor,” said Steve Bezner, pastor of Houston NW megachurch in Houston. Bezner did a retreat with Roberts in Abu Dhabi last year and another one with local clergy this month. He was among the dozens of evangelical pastors at the D.C. conference this week.

Bezner and others said one reason evangelicals are becoming more comfortable with Muslim engagement is because this generation isn’t called “interfaith” — which makes evangelicals nervous because many are theologically conservative and don’t like the concept of watering down the differences between faiths. They call it “multifaith,” which to Bezner feels more frank about the goal: Different faiths standing side by side, not one big squishy group.

“The first time I met an imam in my neighborhood, we’re five minutes into the conversation and he said: ‘Do you think I’m going to hell?’ I said: ‘That’s what my tradition teaches, yes.’ He said: ‘Good, I think you’re going to hell, too, so now we can have an honest conversation.’ ”