This essay argues
that not only is interfaith engagement an invaluable form of Christian mission
wherever Christian and other faith communities live together and share common social
and geographical space, but it is also perhaps one of the most valued forms of Christian
mission operable within dynamic multireligious urban contexts in North America.
What follows is
an overview of the Interdenominational Theological Center’s (ITC) work to equip
theological students for ministry in the dynamically religious contexts of
urban USA. ITC’s unique approach toward interfaith competence supports and
offers current and future Christian leaders opportunities for engaging three religions—African,
Jewish, and Islamic— and their faith systems based on a more relational model
of interfaith engagement.
approximately five minutes from the Interdenominational Theological Center
(ITC) in southwest Atlanta, Georgia, is the West End, a multiethnic, multicultural,
and multireligious community that often serves as a dynamic living classroom
without walls for courses in missiology, evangelism, and religions of the
world. It is often acknowledged that the defining characteristic of West End is
its wide array of religious institutions, from the historic West Hunter Street
Baptist Church to an old-fashioned spiritual reader to the Shrine of the Black
Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore of the Pan-African Orthodox Christian
Church. For at least 15 years, the West End community has played a significant
role in providing ITC students with a dynamic learning context to discover and
practice what it means to be a Christian leader with interfaith competence in a
religiously dynamic community. Students engage the following religious faith
• The Children of Anowa (African Indigenous Believers): Anowa
is a mythical woman representing Africa and the continental values of “love and
respect for life, of people and of nature.”1
• The Children of Sarah (Judaism): The African Hebrew
Israelites of Jerusalem, sometimes referred to as the Hebrew Israelites, or the
Black Jews, are very active in urban cities of the United States.
• The Children of Sarah (Christian): Diverse Christian congregations
have had a long and active presence in the West End.
• The Children of Hagar (Islam): The West End Islamic center,
known as the Community Masjid, has functioned for more than 25 years, dedicated
to the establishment of Islam in the West.
A key component
of ITC’s theological education is developing an intercultural competence among
students that is holistic, multidisciplinary and integrated, and honors
missiology with a bifocal concern for both mission as evangelism and mission as
dialogue with religions of the world.
The Methodological Components of an
Interfaith Engagement as Theological Praxis of Christian Mission2
there is no religion that has not been influenced by culture and no culture
that has not been influenced by religions, theological institutions should
actively and effectively prepare students to engage in intercultural and
interfaith ministries, identifying and utilizing key resources (sacred
Scripture, tradition, culture, and social change) that have served to promote
the Christian faith as an intelligent inquiry into God consciousness. This is
crucial if Christian mission is to be perceived as useful and necessary by
those living and working within the West End, as a heritage capable of
embracing purposeful, creative, holistic, and healing human interactions.
Because the contemporary struggle for human dignity and human rights within the
United States is profoundly personal and communal, theological education has to
take the first step in this recommended engagement of assisting local churches
and their leaders in transforming their spiritual and theological resources in
ways that ignite their sense of vision, purpose, and mission. Local churches
situated in multireligious contexts need shepherding as they overcome
ignorance, hesitancies, and the fear of change, and in providing a moral compass
as they grow in their discovery of who they are and how powerful they can
become without the need to demonize self or others who are different. Only when
theological institutions can help churches and ministries embrace what church
historian emeritus Gayraud Wilmore refers to as a “pragmatic spirituality”3—an
active demonstration of the Christian faith—are leaders able to respond meaningfully,
authentically, and faithfully to twenty-first-century realities facing African
This third circle
involves bringing into focus the narrative of the theological education
institution and its capacity to dialogue with the student who is engaged in
interfaith activity for the purpose of shaping convictions, policy, and
procedures. Defining and accessing demonstrations of effective implementation
of Christian mission as interfaith engagement is not an easy task. Competence can
be measured, but because interfaith competence involves more than knowledge of
other religions, attention must be given to a larger and deeper educational
process that involves the comprehension and development of one’s self and
attitudes in effectively and successfully engaging with persons of diverse
theological education institutions must begin by relying on their theological,
historical, psychological, sociological, and creative resources as they seek to
develop students with interfaith competence. There are six areas related to
intercultural competence efforts that every institution of higher religious education
What is taught,
and how? The curriculum must address the broader goals of theological
education: to form church leaders among God’s people, to inform them about their
faith and its application to modern life; and to equip them to become agents of
transformation in the churches and multireligious communities where God has
Who are our
partners? Emphasized is the need for various denominations, organizations, and
community programs to work together in cooperation and genuine sharing as we
recognize a common sense of mission and purpose for doing education for
do we celebrate and affirm the rich distinctive of our theological and
ecclesiastical history? Spirituality speaks both to the personal and social
dimensions of the student’s religious journeys.
How do we imagine
ourselves planted or situated in the context of our teaching ministry? The
theology, curriculum, teaching methods, academic policies, and administrative
structures are informed by the context of ministry and teaching.
• Constituency: This addresses the basic questions
related to the students we are educating. It implies the “whole people of God”
because it is the whole church that must witness to the whole gospel through
word, deed, and lifestyle.
• Community: What relationships are important to
our institution, our cultures, and the social and religious ethos? Certain religious
persons and leaders of the West End have become important to our academic
programs. Community implies educational cooperation with other existing
organizations, social and educational, in our common life.
Because it is the
mandate of theological institutions to not only guide but also accompany
through education Christian clergy and lay leaders who seek the reign of God
and desire to minister effectively in the rapidly changing, diverse,
multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious communities within the United
States, these six categories related to the notion of interfaith engagement
must be addressed.
Overlapping, Integrating, Shaded Spaces of Reflection
The three circles
I have presented are linked by shaded spaces that represent intentional, guided
periods of theological reflection, sometimes in solitude, but most often
communal. This is important in discovering the level of interfaith competency
of the student as an anticipated outcome of theological education. Michael I.
N. Dash, professor emeritus of the Ministry and Context Department, would
stress again and again the importance of engaging in theological and ministry
reflections that examine “one’s faith in the light of experience” and
“experience in the light of one’s faith.” Aimed at pressing the question about
the presence of God in the experiences of cross-cultural life and intercultural
realities and the implications of that presence, Dash would utilize a
four-source model of theological reflection that encourages attention to exploring
the worlds of tradition, personal position, cultural beliefs and assumptions,
and implications for action. It is through dynamic theological reflection on
interfaith engagement that the student is lead to self-identify areas of
personal responsibility and to take responsibility for personal growth and
spiritual maturity as discerned necessary to accomplish a given purpose.
Individual traits (flexibility, empathy, sincere listening, etc.) as well as
attention to the nature of the relationship between individuals involved in an interfaith
encounter are significant. Because there is no prescriptive set of individual
characteristics or traits that guarantee compliance in all intercultural
situations, relationships and the quality of relationships formed are also
1. Setting the stage: Who (define with specificity) is
attending to this encounter, and what assumptions are undergirding the
2. The story: What narrative is identified as a
significant interfaith or interreligious learning incident?
3. Reading the context: What contextual dynamics are at play,
and how do you understand them?
4. Rereading the sacred text: How might a refocus on the Bible as
sacred text shed light on the particular story or narrated incident?
5. New Mission or interfaith
new insight gained might help to shape a better outcome in light of integrated theological
6. Mission action: What interfaith competence action is
required as a sign and symbol of the reign of God?
7. Retelling the story: How might a new ending result? As a result
of engaging in this particular methodology aimed at discovering God’s will and
God’s ways, how can we envision a different response, one that speaks of “love
and respect for life, of people and of nature”?
prepare seven academic papers responding to the seven steps identified in the
recommended methodology above, it becomes clear that through interfaith
encounters, they serve the church in variety of ways: as public theologian,
innovative faith leader, community activist, ecumenical global networker,
creative educator, contextual communicator, prophetic social justice minister,
and asset-based community developer. By suggesting a particular methodological
paradigm, attention is given to how the interfaith engagement of students may
become an analytical outcome of Christian mission that points toward a process
that enables us to learn how to provide students with the attitudes, skills,
and behaviors that will lead to effective, successful, and faithful leadership
in contexts of religious diversity.
1See Daughters of Anowa: African Women and Patriarchy, by Mercy Amba Oduyoye (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 10.
Oduyoye further describes how Anowa is meaningful in the Ghanaian culture and
makes references to other sources where Anowa is described as a priest (see Anowa [London:
Harlow, 1970, and Longman-Drumbeat, 1980]) and a prophet (Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973) who
(and the related figures presented) is adapted from the work of an
international research and writing team in which I participated, resulting in God So Loves the City: Seeking a Theology for Urban
Mission, edited by Charles Van Engen and Jude
Tiersma Watson (MARC, 1994).
Spirituality: The Christian Faith through an Africentric Lens by Gayraud S. Wilmore (New York University Press,
2004) is the book referenced here.
4See Transforming the City: Reframing Education for Urban
Ministry, by Eldin Villafane,
Bruce Jackson, Robert Evans, and Alice Frazer Evans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
2002). Although this work was originally presented as categories utilized in
the academic subdiscipline of urban missiology, because of its commitment to
people, the categories speak to key phenomena impacting intercultural and
5Essential principles of womanist religious scholars,
pastoral care givers, and womanist methodologies that are applicable and offer
extremely helpful insights are as follows: the promotion of clear communication
(verbal, physical and/or spiritual); multidialogical approach; liturgical
intent that has implications for life and living; didactic intent that has
implications for teaching and learning; commitment to both reason and
experience; holistic accountability (rejects bifurcation between sacred and
mundane); and a concern for healing.
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Rev. Marsha Snulligan-Haney is Professor of Missiology and Religions of the World and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, Georgia.