“Can we love our neighbors if we don’t even know them?” This question helped to kickstart a summertime series on interfaith conversations at Redeemer Church in La Mirada, CA, to engage people and leaders of different faiths in the community. On this segment of Reports From The Front, Greg Stump, executive pastor at Redeemer Church discusses these Redeemer Conversations with Tim and Rick. Greg shares stories and insights on how they host these conversations. This episode highlights the importance of the virtue of intellectual curiosity, the rule of reciprocation, and practical ideas you can do to converse with others who hold different core beliefs and values.
Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name's Rick Langer and I'm a professor here at Biola University in the Biblical Studies and Theology Department, and I'm also the director of the Office of Faith and Learning. But perhaps at the moment, the most important thing is I'm the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project, along with a good friend of mine.
Tim Muehlhoff: Rick, it's great to be here. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of communication at Biola University and the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project. Rick, probably my favorite segment that we get to do on this podcast, we call it Reports from The Front. These are individuals that are just doing the very things that we're advocating. And it's so fun to come across these stories, and we hope that in today's argument culture, you find these stories encouraging, that people are doing really good work, they're just not getting the headlines, they're not getting the press.
Rick Langer: Yeah, these aren't just reports from the front, these are good reports from the front. Because there's a lot of reports from the front right now, Tim, that aren't so very good.
Tim Muehlhoff: They are nuts.
Rick Langer: But especially I'm looking forward to what we'll have today. Because it is, it's one of the things that's really encouraging. And the other thing that I love about it is that I think some of the things that we'll be hearing are things that you realize, "Oh, this is the kind of thing that I could actually do or be a part of, or something like that, in my own community."
Tim Muehlhoff: And this guest, Greg, who I'll introduce in a second, we've known each other since 2014. But just recently he was on campus and we ran into each other and we were just talking and he mentioned something that his church does. And immediately, I said, "Greg, please tell me you'll be on our podcast," and he said, "Absolutely." So let me introduce our guest today. That is Greg Stump. He is a graduate of Fuller's Theological Seminary. He's the executive pastor of Redeemer Church in La Mirada, California. He's the editor of a volume called Rethinking Hell. And in 2014, Rick, remember one of the great things Biola does is the Center for Christian thought.
And what you can do as a faculty member is you can apply to take a semester and focus on a book project, focus on something, and they give you the time and the space to do it. And it's led by the people who help run the Center for Christian Thought. Rick, that was the very first chapter I ever wrote for Winsome Persuasion, which was our very first book. I got a chance to present those chapters in front of pastors, scholars. And that's-
Rick Langer: And people like Greg.
Tim Muehlhoff: And people like Greg. And so that was the very first time I met Greg Stump. We became friends. He's just great. So Greg, welcome so much to the pinnacle of your career, the Winsome Conviction podcast.
Greg Stump: It's a privilege to be here.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, thanks for joining us. Hey, let's jump in and get a good update from the front. So, when you and I were talking on campus, you mentioned something, and I'm going to let you introduce it to our listeners, but it's called Redeemer Conversations. It's something that your church has done, particularly in the summertime. Can you just explain to our listeners, what are these Redeemer Conversations?
Greg Stump: Yeah, it's usually just that in the summertime we try to give our community group leaders a break so they don't have to host and lead the group all year round. So, then we offer something at the church, which is just kind of a church-wide midweek gathering and we have dinner and talk about some different topics. And so we have all kinds of different things that we've talked about over the years. Last summer we had Carmen Imes talking about the Imprecatory Psalms, and we've had different people share about their experiences with mental health issues or just all kinds of different things.
But we started a few years back, and I think it actually did come out of the time that I was the pastor-in-residence at the Center for Christian Thought, talking about intellectual virtue and civil discourse. And so during that time, I just began thinking about things a little differently, both how I had come to hold my own convictions and how I engaged with people that had different convictions than my own. And so some of the values that came out of that time that I ended up preaching with other preachers from our church in a summer sermon series in 2015, we were talking about things like intellectual curiosity.
And so that's where you're just kind of desiring to understand more about how someone else came to hold their beliefs. And so as I was planning out the Redeemer Conversations for that summer, I thought, maybe it would be interesting just to invite over some of our neighbors of different faith communities to share with us, just to practice that value of intellectual curiosity. And so the first guest that we had come that summer was Rabbi Mark Goldfarb from the local Jewish temple just down the street from us. And so I just invited him on his own. Nobody else came from his congregation. But I just told him, "Most of us only know about the Jewish faith from what we read in the Old and New Testament, but what does it look like for someone to practice Judaism today in the 21st century America?"
And so he graciously came over and he brought over the scroll that they have there, the readings from the Hebrew scriptures, and came and talked to us. And I think he thought it was kind of just an educational time to let us know. They practice reform Judaism there, so it's the more liberal end of Jewish faith tradition. And he was just telling us what it was like to be a Jew here in La Mirada in the 21st century, and it was a fascinating and great time. So then we decided the next summer we wanted to do it again, but this time we thought it would be really neat to have other members of the congregation come as well, just ordinary folks. And so we contacted the local mosque, they call it a masjid, there on Imperial Highway. And so the imam and about 15 members of the congregation came over and we had dinner together.
And the imam started with a presentation, talking about the pillars of Islam. But then over dinner we just got into a natural time of sharing, or hearing them share about their experience as Muslims in America, and had some really fascinating conversations. And then they even asked, "Would it be all right if we did our evening prayers?" And so we opened up our social hall and they took out some mats and did a time of prayer, facing Mecca. It was a little strange to see that in our social hall. But as we were sitting in the back observing them do their prayers, afterwards we came in and reflected, it's so fascinating the ways that they will prostrate themselves and their hands are doing different gestures, almost like they're breathing in a fragrance as they're praying. And we were saying, "Gosh, as Christians from a certain evangelical tradition, sometimes we're very just kind of locked in. Our bodies are crouched over in prayer and we don't really do much, we're not very expressive." And so it was fascinating to watch them.
Tim Muehlhoff: But Greg, let me jump in real quick. So I can see some within the Christian community saying, "Okay, a rabbi, I get a rabbi. Okay, because we have the Old Testament, that's part of our heritage. Okay, I'm good with a rabbi, that's fine. But what? An imam? Why in the world would you invite an imam and allow that imam to do prayers within the confines of your church?" So how did you feel going from the rabbi experience to... What made you think about, "Now I'm going to go with an imam?" Were there hesitations? What was the imam's reaction when you called him and said, "Hey, I got an idea for you"? Bring us up to speed a little bit on that.
Greg Stump: I think that we realized this might be a challenge for some folks in our community. But we were thinking about two of Jesus' commands. One, love your neighbors. And we thought, "Can we love our neighbors if we don't even know them?" And so showing them the respect of saying, "We'd love for you to talk to us about your life, and part of that is your faith tradition." And so sharing a meal together and listening to them was a way of showing our love to them. And then secondly, when Jesus said, "Do unto others as you'd have them do to you," we realized that for us, we can get pretty frustrated when the worst versions of our faith community are represented in public, like Westboro Baptist Church or Christian nationalism. And so we wanted to give them an opportunity to speak about their own lives and tell us from their own mouths what they believed and what they practiced.
So that was the way that we pitched it to the church. And actually, there's an elder from our church at the time, Todd Thompson, who lived in Qatar for a while. He taught at a university there. And when he moved back to the US, he made it a point to go over and get to know the imam at the local mosque. And so we just asked Todd, "Would you help facilitate this?" So he already had a previous relationship. And so when they came over, I had kind of prepped the church like, "This isn't a time for debate. We're really just hosting and wanting to listen and ask clarifying questions and just questions about the human experience."
And so I think that they responded really well. And it didn't feel like they were wary of us or wondering, "Why are you doing this?" They were really excited to be able to come and share that they oppose violence that is seen in some of the worst religious extremism around the world, that they were seeking peace. They wanted to be good neighbors to us as well. And so that was a really beautiful time to hear their message of peace as we ate together.
Rick Langer: And I'm curious with this, did areas of belief even come up in terms of differences? And if so, was there tension that arose? And if not, talk to me about what do you think about the merits of just having experience where the guidelines are, we're going to talk about common ground, not the things that distinguish and separate and that we differ on? So I'm just interested, how did you navigate that question?
Greg Stump: Because we had set it up as, "We would love for you to come and just share your perspective, and we want to listen," when the Muslim community came over, they didn't actually ask us anything about our beliefs or practices. And so we didn't interject them, although that little comment about our prayers are not quite as expressive physically, they were interested in that. But actually, the next year when I invited the bishop and members of the LDS ward, which is what they call their church, that's just down the block from our church, to come over, there was more of an exchange where we were talking about some of the differences. Because it's a lot closer and we use a lot of the same terms and they even share some of the same scriptures as us. So we did get into some of those differences. But it felt like, again, they were practicing curiosity as well. "What do you guys... How do you do this?"
Or I found out that, for instance, they don't use wine or juice when they take communion, but they use water for the cleansing. And so it was just interesting to discover some of those differences. And even to discover that there's some things that maybe we believe, like, for instance, they have ongoing revelation through their prophets. And so for them, it's not a problem if they changed something that was in an older scripture and updated. And yet for us as Christians, we're like, "No, that means that it's wrong." But that's not their conviction, that's not what they think. They're like, "We're fine with that. God has given us a prophet to help us to make sure that we have the best revelation." And so it kind of put us in a spot like, "Oh, okay, we have different values or different core beliefs than they do." And so the things that are problematic for us about their faith, for them it wasn't a problem.
Tim Muehlhoff: Greg, this is starting to sound like a joke. A rabbi, an imam and an LDS bishop walk into Greg's church. But do you feel like it was creating momentum with your congregation, that, hey, now this is part of the rhythm of we're not going be fearful of other perspectives? We're not going to condone them, but we are going to invite and open the doors of our church to have them come in and get to know them, do perspective-taking and stuff like that. What effect was this having on the congregation as you started to continually invite people to the church?
Greg Stump: Right. Well, I think it definitely opened us up. So subsequent years, after we had had the imam and the members of the masjid come over, they invited us to join them. Sometimes they'll have what they call open mosque. So they just invite visitors to come in and they provide food and talk about what they're doing, the practice. In fact, just recently, they had what was called an iftar dinner. That's when they're breaking their Ramadan fast at sunset. And so they invited members of the community over to join them. And again, they talked about what is Ramadan? They're trying to educate us.
But then we just sat around and had a meal together. And so I think that doing those Redeemer Conversations where we invited them to come into our space and they gladly did that, it opened us to be able to join with them. And again, we don't act like we all believe all of the same things or we don't obscure the differences. We realize that there's many significant differences between what we believe. But we're neighbors, and when your neighbors invite you over for a meal, join them. That's just Christian hospitality and human hospitality.
Tim Muehlhoff: This is such a great example, Greg, of something we call in communication theory, the rule of reciprocation. That when you are kind to a person, when you invite them into your home, when you share a meal, when you break bread, that there is this almost built-in inclination to reciprocate. So, I love the fact that this just wasn't one-sided, that they invited you, "Hey, come to our mosque." So explain for our listeners who have never been in a mosque before, what was it like to walk in? What were some dos and don'ts as you partook in a worship ceremony in a mosque?
Greg Stump: Right. Yeah. The first place that we were welcome to was kind of their multi-purpose room. And so they actually briefed us and did a virtual tour of the mosque where they showed, "Here's all the different parts." And so they will wash their hands before they go into the meeting place. They take off their shoes. But they didn't actually require us to do that, or the women that had joined us, they didn't require them to wear the hijab. We were watching what they were doing. We didn't join them on the floor of the mosque in prayer. We were kind of back. I still had my shoes on, sitting in the back. But afterwards we were able to talk with one another and talk about... Yeah, I mean, it's interesting. It's not like a church service. What we're seeing is their regular prayers. This was on a Friday evening that we went to join them in their prayers.
So they don't have a long sermon and messages or whatever. It's mostly prayers that are part of their regular tradition that they're offering together. And then they'll have teaching times later, separately. One of the things I forgot to mention, though, and this is back with Todd Thompson, was that after, I think it was 2015, maybe, where there was that terrible shooting in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. And actually the mosque invited us to come for a peace march, and we just walked around the neighborhood of their mosque and then came back together. And they actually invited Todd to come up to the area where the speaker is in the mosque. And he shared and affirmed our mutual desire for there to be freedom and freedom from fear to practice our faith in a public setting without having to worry about something like this.
And it was just so sweet to see Todd representing, I think, a winsome Christianity that sees how terrible of a loss that they were going through and the fear that was coming upon them. And their mosque had gotten egged around that same time, and it just felt like to try to represent a little bit different voice of loving neighbors, standing with them in opposition. And hearing them say, "The thing that we want to promote is peace within our community," was really beautiful.
Rick Langer: Let me just ask, has this had an impact on your own spiritual life? What fruit has it borne in your own soul?
Greg Stump: Yeah. I do think, I mean, one thing, I grew up in a pretty fundamentalist background. And so my world was very small. I didn't want to engage people of other faiths. I remember when Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons would come to the door, my parents would say, "Hide." And I always had this kind of fear, like there are something so strange, almost unhuman about these groups, because we saw them as cults and they're preying upon people. And so to sit down and get to know the Mormon bishop, and we went out to a number of meals together and I got to know him. He's a teacher at a local school and really just a wonderful person. It helped me to see our shared humanity and realize that in some ways I'd been treating these folks in a way that was dehumanizing and that I would hate if people treated me that way because I have deeply held beliefs and because I'm part of a faith community.
And so it was a real growth experience for me to be able to be opened up to relating to these people of different faiths, just as fellow human beings who have sincere beliefs that they deeply hold. And so coming out of this relationship that started with having the bishop and their congregation over to our church, now we're partnering together with Love La Mirada to serve our city. We are just, I think, experiencing a neighborliness that should have been going on from the time that I came to the church in 2006. And I just had never reached out. And actually, I mean, if I can be totally honest, there is a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall that's one block away from our church, and I still have never initiated with them. I think there's a residual kind of fear of the strangeness and difference. So, even as I reflect on this, it's kind of a challenge to me say, "Why have I never done that? Why is that a bridge too far?"
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, Greg, I really do appreciate your transparency. And I would have to say, when it comes to Jehovah Witnesses, I don't know much at all. I mean, I know The Watchtower. And I can think of two occasions when I've rather curtly closed the door, like, "No, thanks," to Jehovah Witnesses. But I recently had an interesting experience. We had two gentlemen come do some remodeling in our house, and both are Jehovah Witnesses. And so this wasn't a quick project. So we had conversations every morning, about marriage, about how to raise your kids in a religious home that they'll stay with those values. They were having a convention in Anaheim on cultivating patience in a crazy, busy world.
And so what happened was the strangeness went away and we found a ton to talk about. Now, this is happening in real time. We're moving towards the disagreements, which you can do a quick Google search and you'll know what those disagreements are. But this is CALM Theory of find the points of connection first. But what mostly has happened is the strangeness has gone away. One, they love our dog. See, you had me at hello, they love Raleigh. So I just appreciate you saying that. And it's funny how we let the strangeness keep us at an arm's distance. But thanks for being transparent.
Rick Langer: And just for the record, Tim, if you've only shut the door on the Jehovah's Witness face two times you can remember, I win. I have done that a whole lot more often than that. And I realize that there's a kind of a mode. My contact with Jehovah's Witnesses comes when they're selling me something at my front door. And so I respond the same way that I respond to the guy who's selling me solar at my front door, or a friend who's selling me Fuller Brushes, Amways, whatever your things are. There's a sense in which, "You know what? I don't want to buy. I've checked into this item. I'm just not interested. So, pursuing the conversation is not of interest to me. And I don't think it will be fruitful, so let's save us both time." And I don't try to be rude, but if they keep talking, I'm happy to go ahead and just close the door. So, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Like with telemarketers.
Rick Langer: Same sort of a thing.
Tim Muehlhoff: "Hey, Mr. Muehlhoff. Hi." "No. Sorry."
Rick Langer: But the thing that's interesting about your story is I realize, I think people will say this about Christians too, that we're always trying to sell Jesus when we do evangelism. And I realize, in your case, when you're describing having some guys do work for you... I've had people do work who are not only not Christians, they're not Jehovah's Witnesses, they are clearly not anything vaguely religious, and their daily language and conversation proves that all the time. But I nonetheless talk to them about all the things you just described. And I realized that that's one of those things, that my contact with Jehovah's Witnesses is really entirely limited to this sales transaction kind of a thing.
And I think that's a good thing for us to flip around and think about as Christians and say, if our contact with non-Christians is strictly when we're trying to sell something, we're trying to invite them to church for the evangelistic Christmas program or share our faith with them, if those are the only conversations that you have, then you're likely to experience a lot of rejection. And you think, "These are just a bunch of people who want to do nothing but reject me." And it's partly because of the mode of conversation you enter into.
Tim Muehlhoff: So, yeah, we're not advocating that now you have to have a conversation with everybody who comes to your front door. But interesting to think, Greg, what modes do I kick in, on what topics? I remember Noreen grabbed me one time, I was on the debate team in college, and she said, "You get into this stance when this topic comes up. And it's kind of like we're not talking about it anymore. You're in debate mode." And it's interesting to think about what are the topics where I very quickly kick into, "I'm going to set you straight. It's probably not going to take that long because your position is so obviously weak." You know what I mean? That's interesting to think about, how we kick into that mode.
Greg Stump: Right. Sometimes it almost seems like a good mode that we can be in is just having the curiosity, like, "I don't think I'm going to agree with you, but how did you come to hold this position?" And that can be a doorway into relationship, hearing their story.
Tim Muehlhoff: And that's why we love you being on this podcast. Remember, we opened it with the Reports from The Front. We're just always keeping our eyes open for people who want to cultivate that curiosity. And that's what your church has really done. And thank you for taking the risks to do that and to be a model to us that, hey, the people around us, we certainly can't fix the world, and it's going to be hard to even fix the state, but can we fix our community and just be curious about the people around us? I think that's achievable, that we can do that.
Rick Langer: And your example is great in terms of just thinking about, you've got a Jewish synagogue right down the street, literally. You have Jehovah's Kingdom Hall. You have a Muslim community. And for most of us, living in Southern California in particular, but really in a large number of places around the country, that kind of pluralistic demographic is just a given. And if you're really serious about loving your neighbors, you've got a really diverse pool of neighbors in the most literal sense.
Greg Stump: That's right. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: What a gift, in many ways. And we just need to take advantage of that. Sometimes we're so busy, we're so cocooned, that we don't even know the neighbors up and down our street. I mean, that really can be true. And we just got to find a way. So let me brag on one of our colleagues, John Lundy. John and I regularly go for a walk. We take Raleigh with us, our dog. So when we finish our loop, we walk back into John's neighborhood. I promise you, as we're walking into the neighborhood, he is saying hi to everybody by name, and it's really cool. And even saying, "Hey, how's that? Hey, what's about...?" And I'm like, "Oh my gosh, John, I couldn't do that in my neighborhood."
I thought that was really cool that he's been very intentional about doing that. And I thought that was great. I felt really bad when Raleigh went to the bathroom on one of the lawns. No, I'm just kidding. So Greg, thank you so much. But we want to bring you back for the next segment because it's not always been smooth sailing. You've had to make some decisions in real time and even some hard decisions. And we want to explore a couple of those. And even you've had a unique theological journey on a topic we'd love to explore with you. So, game for coming back?
Greg Stump: Yeah, absolutely.
Tim Muehlhoff: Awesome. Thank you.
Rick Langer: And thanks for joining us on the Winsome Conviction podcast. We'd love to have you subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or wherever it is you get your podcasts. And check us out on the winsomeconviction.com website as well. Thanks so much for joining us.