By Jeff Brumley
Last fall, an Oklahoma Guardsman and member of a Baptist church met an Afghan doctor who had just immigrated to the United States after years interpreting for American combat troops.
The soldier essentially adopted the Muslim man — and so did NorthHaven Church, a Baptist congregation in Norman, Okla.
The relationship has continued to deepen, church member Randy Ridenour said.
“It was telling last Sunday when the Afghan doctor comes to church and the adopting family is out of town for the holidays,” said Ridenour, a chaplain in the Army Reserve and a philosophy professor at Oklahoma Baptist University.
The man was welcomed even while NorthHaven continued being what it is: a Baptist church.
“NorthHaven stands for loving other people regardless of what sort of faith community they come from and people find that refreshing,” he said. “And they don’t expect you to compromise your own beliefs.”
A maturing dialogue
The congregational culture that makes possible a welcoming atmosphere for non-Christians at NorthHaven was instilled from the church’s beginning in 2004, Pastor Mitch Randall said.
Randall said the founding members began dialoguing with local Muslims after one of them reached out to the church and other moderate Christians.
“They began discussing how they could do interfaith dialogue in a more intimate way,” he said. “Our congregation went up to a Turkish cultural center, met the members and dined together — and that was reciprocated.”
From there the practice continued and grew, putting NorthHaven on the map not only in Norman but around the state — and in its primary affiliation, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — as a church on the cutting edge of interfaith dialogue and ministry.
Randall and his congregation established relationships with other Muslims in the state, a fact that became headline news in Oklahoma at the 10-year anniversary of 9-11. Baptists joined with Jews and Muslims in a highly visible memorial and panel discussion.
It all goes back to making a decision between being Christians who are suspicious of others groups, or Christians who see other people as children of God, Randall said.
“The way we see the world determines how interfaith dialogue and relations mature over the years,” he said.
NorthHaven’s early openness set the stage for continuing those kinds of relationships.
“It was very quickly established that the church’s world view is we don’t look at the world with suspicion but with curiosity and openness to discover the commonalities we have with other humans.”
‘Ecumenical with Baptist tendencies’
Another contributing factor, Randall said, is that NorthHaven worshiped in a Presbyterian church the first three years of its life.
Now, it’s the Baptist congregation doing the welcoming since its membership requirements were altered to allow those baptized as infants or through sprinkling to join the church.
NorthHaven maintains its Baptist identity by continuing to use full-immersion baptism for those who want it or who have not been baptized before. The church will not baptize infants.
Otherwise, previous baptisms are recognized as honored by God, he said.
The result has been an influx of new members originating from other Christian traditions, including Catholicism.
“We have a lot of [former] Catholics,” he said.
It also affects the culture of the church.
“We describe ourselves as an ecumenical community with Baptist tendencies,” Randall added.
‘What is my worldview?’
One of the ways those tendencies play out is through overseas mission.
Five or six years ago, NorthHaven brokered an arrangement between itself, the CBF of Oklahoma and the Ghana Baptist Convention for a multi-year mission and missionary initiatiave in the African nation.
Projects include mosquito net distribution and supporting a Ghanaian home missionary who has been planting churches.
“We took the lead, which is an important facet of how missions are changing today,” he said of congregational-led projects.
Reaching around the globe to help the poor or across town to embrace members of other faiths is part of the same impulse.
“It goes to the idea where many moderate Baptists find themselves,” Randall said. “What is my worldview?”
If it’s about being part of a group that is suspicious of others, “that will be detrimental to any type of interfaith dialogue or mission.”
But moderate Baptists usually identify more with the persecuted after their painful experiences in the Southern Baptist Convention, he said.
“They know what it’s like to have people say things that are untrue about you” and “have false claims leveled against you,” Randall said.
‘Make an impact on the world’
For Ridenour, NorthHaven’s interfaith work has provided practical benefits.
Ridenour served in Afghanistan last year. He was stationed at a United Nations base that was home to troops of more than 30 nationalities plus a large number of Afghan personnel.
“You can imagine how much interfaith we had going on,” he said.
While much of his interfaith experience comes from on-the-job training, much of it also comes from NorthHaven, Ridenour said.
“One of the things I value in the church, particularly for me in my context as an Army chaplain, is it’s a necessary complement to my Army ministry.”
One of those lessons is realizing that engaging with people of other faiths does not mean watering down his own beliefs.
“Just having a genuine dialogue with another person about what they believe doesn’t mean you are compromising your own beliefs in any way,” he said.
Ridenour said he’s grateful to belong to a congregation where he can continue to learn those lessons even when he’s not overseas.
And the church’s approach is also one that can help it and other congregations effectively share the gospel in a post-modern culture.
That kind of dialogue also is needed to build relationships between Christians and those of no faith, or between generations.
“That’s the kind of ministry Christians need to adopt if we really want to make an impact in the world,” Ridenour said. “Because we no longer live in a culture where Christianity is taken for granted.”
— Baptist News Global’s reporting on innovative congregational ministries is part of the Pacesetter Initiative, funded in part by the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation.