Sitting in a hospital waiting room recently, I was struck by the diversity of the people there. Our community, like so many across the country, is an interesting mix of people of varied ethnic backgrounds. This is the new reality where there will be no clear majority population in the United States. We will be a nation of minorities! Along with this ethnic diversity comes an interesting mix of culture, religion, and non-religion.
This mosaic of cultures challenges churches and religious institutions to look at ministry in new ways. We are no longer “Protestant, Catholic, Jew”—the neat categories Will Herberg used in the fifties to describe the American religious landscape. At that time, “interfaith marriage” was often between members of Protestant denominations (Baptist and Methodist, for example) rather than Christian and Muslim or Buddhist and Christian.
How will we address this challenge?
First, many seminaries are already embracing this opportunity. The minister of the 21st century must be equipped to relate to, work alongside, and dialogue with leaders from a number of religious and ethnic groups. This should be a necessary part of ministry formation. Seminaries often offer or require cross-cultural experiences so that students move out of their comfort zones and learn about other cultures. Within the classroom setting, seminaries may enlist instructors who are not Christians to teach classes, offering their unique perspective to the subject matter.
Second, on the local level, clergy leaders are developing interfaith groups where they can find ways not only to understand each other but to interpret other faiths to their own congregants. This may result in interfaith forums and dialogue groups open to the general public and shared worship experiences.
Third, the second response of local dialogue will certainly result in more cooperative endeavors where faith leaders call their congregants to work together to address community issues such as hunger, homelessness, and justice. No matter what one’s faith may be, we are all concerned about our brothers and sisters in need. This commitment is part of all faith traditions.
As Christian leaders engage in these activities, they are not being asked to compromise their beliefs or values, but to find to new ways to find common ground and embrace shared values. This is a good thing.