Archive | April, 2012

On sharing your faith

26 Apr

I’m going to take a break from dissecting my own conversations today because I realized I’ve been operating under an assumption that my readers might not hold. Being a vocal witness for Jesus is a requirement if you are a Christian.

I live in an inner city neighborhood. You can follow the 911 calls made from our zip code on twitter and it reads like an episode of Law and Order. Often I’ll meet Christian folks who say “What you’re doing is great, but it’s not for me.” I totally agree. I will argue the point however if the same Christians suggest they have no part in caring for the poor. This is non-negotiable. (See Isaiah 58, James 1-2 or any of Jesus’ miracles for more info)

In the same way, a lot of Christians like to offer the (probably not authentic) saying of Francis of Assisi as a sort of Get-out-of-evangelism-free card: “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”

When I first hear this I remember thinking “Yeah!” but after reflection I’ve realized that our deeds are meaningless when divorced from context. If your neighbor does not know why you are caring for them so well, they will attribute it to you. Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world, we are the salt of the earth, we must go and make disciples of all nations. For the most part, the American church has settled for being really nice and inviting people to church.

Don’t get me wrong – invite people to church, it’s awesome. In fact, I think it is one of the easiest and least potentially offensive ways to start a spiritual conversation. Ask your friend/co-worker/step-aunt to church (or community group, or small group, etc.) and either way they respond you have something to go on.

If they say YES: done! Make plans sooner rather than later.

If they say NO, their response probably falls into one of two categories:

The deflection says “no, I’m busy.” (or any, “no, I have ___ going on” response) To this we can respond by pointing out that they won’t always be busy and it’s ok if they’re not interested, but if that’s the case let us know because otherwise we will invite them again in the future. Which can lead to…

The shut down says “no.” (Usually coupled with, “I’m not very religious.”) Here we have an opportunity to surprise them or simply be curious about their past. I often respond to the shut down by asking if folks grew up in a particular religious tradition and got over it or if they have never explored faith/spirituality. We have now added “spiritual things” to the list of acceptable conversation topics and additionally have made the foundation of that conversation curiosity not argumentation.

Contrast this approach of invitation/curiosity with the brashness of trying to argue with non-christians, or the passive transfer of an impersonal tract. I believe both of those have some role to play, but I also believe this is better. The key is not stopping after you “pop the question.” If you’ve already mustered up the courage to make an invitation, keep the momentum going no matter the response and press in!

At this point some readers may be tempted to respond “that’s great for you, you talk to strangers all the time and have a degree in apologetics!” Yes, but this was not always the case. One of my first experiences as an IV staff was to wander around the campus of Brevard Community College and invite people into spiritual conversation. I had never done this before, nor had any training. After 10 minutes or so of walking I went into the library and sat down, burning the next 20 that we had allotted. I was scared and didn’t know what I was doing, and I hid in the library. Having conversations about your faith is a learned skill that comes only with practice and patience. Your churches is a great place for people to hear the Good News, but please don’t put all your eggs in one basket by refusing to engage people on a one-to-one level.

After re-reading this I realized that I haven’t made the case that individual evangelism is called for by the nature of our faith. Here it is, briefly. If you are a Christian then you are an eyewitness to the activity of the risen Jesus. However, our call is not to be witnesses in the sense of having observed something, but witnesses who testify! If you are not testifying then you are just an observer. The harvest is plentiful, the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest therefore to send out workers into his harvest field. (Luke 10:2).

When people don’t care…

23 Apr

Earlier this year I surveyed students at UCF to hear their thoughts about the truth content of religious texts. My approach was to ask “Do you think religious texts contain truth?” and to follow up that question with “how can you tell?” The hope was to engage them in a discussion about the nature of spiritual truth and ultimately point to Jesus as a possible source.

I ran into one young woman who was completely disinterested. She had not read any religious texts but admitted that they might have some “small facts.” I said “That’s ok; lots of people haven’t [read those types of books]. If someone were to hand you a religious book today, like the Koran for example – how would you decide if it was true or not?” She responded that she wouldn’t know.

I decided to switch gears and ask if she had any interest in spiritual things (almost always a surefire “yes” and a road to fruitful dialogue) and she said “not really.” And herein lies the rub.

It seems that there are two possible responses by the Christian:

a)      Acknowledge that we cannot convict someone; that is the role of the Holy Spirit. If a person is uninterested we should continue to pray for them but wait until they become interested before pursuing the conversation.

b)      Acknowledge the role of the Holy Spirit but also embrace our role as Kingdom ambassadors and heralds. Assuming this role we try to draw out a person’s inner longing for God (which we – for reasons beyond the scope of this post – assume is there) using whatever means seem best.

Option A is the route I take with friends, family and folks with whom I am in sustained relationship. There will be continued opportunities (barring any unforeseen tragedy) and to push the envelope is to overpower the sweet aroma of Jesus with my own B.O.

However, when I am speaking with a person I don’t know I feel differently. Ideally, I will become this person’s friend and we can have an ongoing dialogue – but if that doesn’t happen it seems best to try to plant a seed, a sort of spiritual inception.

I have tried various approaches, including but not limited to presenting them with The Absurdity of Life Without God, asking them what they think happens when we die, praying for them right there, or just giving up. In this instance I chose to encourage her to consider reading the Gospels. I told her “The Bible is arguably the most influential book in Western civilization – it might be worth reading just so you can know some trivia for cocktail parties. Have you ever heard the term ‘Good Samaritan?’” She said that she had, and I proceeded to explain that it is from one of Jesus’ stories. I then shared the parable with her. She seemed vaguely interested but had to get back to studying frog embryos, so I left her.

I have more questions than answers when it comes to interacting with folks who are apathetic to spiritual things, but I hope to keep running into them as I continue to discern the most loving way to be a witness to this population.

Winning credibility and blowing minds in two simple steps

19 Apr

In a conversation last week I asked a girl to sum up in her experience what Christianity is all about. I often use this approach in conversations with folks I don’t know. It has been important for me to emphasize the experiential nature of their understanding so they don’t think I am giving them some sort of theological pop quiz. Most of the time people respond with some sort of list full of do’s and don’ts. For example, in last week’s conversation my new friend responded with this list: “Go to church…a lot. Don’t have sex. Don’t be gay…” She trailed off and I asked if she felt it was basically a list of rules. She responded that she felt exactly that way.

This is step one. I responded by agreeing that often the Christian faith (and others as well) present themselves as a list of things to do and things to avoid. I also mentioned that I’m not very good at following lists, and if that defined Christianity I would probably not make the cut. Religion loves lists, and there are only two possible outcomes. If you do everything on the list (or convince yourself that you have) you feel you have earned God’s favor and you look down on others who can’t perform as well as you. If you can’t do everything on the list you begin to beat yourself up, falling into a crushing cycle of guilt, effort and shame (this is me). There is no in between with a religious list. The “Christianity” that comes in list form is actually a different religion called Moralism – and it can’t save you.

My friend was intrigued by this concept, but I hadn’t explained step two: The Gospel. Earlier in our conversation she mentioned she was a good person. I agreed that she seemed nice and that if we lined up 100 random people in order of “goodness” that she would probably be near the front of the line or at least in the top half. I then asked how close to the front of the line she thought a person needed to be in order to be in relationship with a perfect God. She hadn’t thought about this much, and didn’t want to guess at it.

I let her in on the bad news: no one in the line can be in relationship with a perfect God because no one in the line is perfect. We look good when standing next to serial killers, and bad next to Mother Theresa but none of us can walk into God’s throne room in our current state. Immediately I let her in on the good news: religion can’t fix this, but the Gospel can.

God has provided a way, through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us to be in relationship with him again. Through Christ our sins (and the punishment for those sins) are taken away and replaced with His righteousness. We do nothing to earn this offered salvation and can only claim it through repentance and faith. This was definitely a new concept for her, one that she was much more open to hearing about than XYZ Church’s personal theological agenda.*

To sum up, inviting people to share their experience with Christianity/the Church and owning whatever part of that experience is negative is a great way to build trust. Surprising them with the truth of the Gospel and dismissing the notion of religious rule following puts the trust you’ve earned to good use. Of course, on the other side of our salvation is the lifelong journey of sanctification (being made holy) and this can look like following rules. The motivation behind our behavior distinguishes the two. Formerly we tried to earn our goodness, now we act righteously out of loving obedience knowing that our relationship does not hinge on perfect performance.

*NOTE: I often share the Gospel when having spiritual conversations with folks I don’t know, but it is not a necessary step if you can cultivate a relationship. Usually it is best to move at a slower pace, building trust along the road. Our goal as evangelists is not to just tell the Gospel to as many people as possible, but to offer as many people as possible a legitimate opportunity to respond to Jesus. If someone is not ready, forcing that decision upon them will be fruitless. This process is a journey, not a sprint; so wander with care.

should everyone be allowed to believe whatever they want?

16 Apr

One important skill in conversational apologetics is the ability to recognize an inconsistency in your friend’s worldview. Pointing this out with tact is a helpful step towards analyzing and rejecting incoherent or incomplete worldviews.

Today I was at UCF hoping to engage students with the question “Do you believe there are any moral absolutes?” The following conversation is particularly helpful in illustrating the above point.

I was with another person who introduced us as Christians before I asked the question, and I think it colored the response of a young woman we met. After she asked for clarification about my question, we settled on “is there anything that you think is morally true for everyone regardless of whether or not they agree?” Her response came quickly: “Everyone should have the right to their own opinions and beliefs.”

(Aside: Can we get a more textbook 21st century western answer?? This response feels like she was reading from the Tolerance is the Highest Virtue Handbook! I suspect this was her warning that we should not preach at her, a warning we heeded….sort of)

Our initial plan was to go from the reality of moral absolutes to the existence of God to the Gospel, sounds easy right? We assumed we would have to reason with people about the existence of moral absolutes, not the absolutes themselves; but in this case I took the side street. “Everyone should have the right to their own beliefs” sounds okay at first blush, and it is okay if people stop at beliefs. The problem is that they rarely do. In this case what we are really suggesting is that everyone should have the right not to believe what they want but to do what they want. I chose to illustrate my disagreement with her binding moral principle by asking about a person who was attracted to minors and believed that going to the local middle school was the best way to find a good sexual partner. Of course our new friend was horrified with this and agreed that some beliefs cannot be allowed to come to fruition. Our conversation went on from there and I am happy to say that we shared the Gospel with her (and personally, I think we respected her unvoiced request not to be preached at).

The main takeaway here is to follow your gut if you spot an inconsistency in someone’s worldview. Notice that instead of saying “you’re dumb” or something similar I just posed a question that exposed her opinion as untenable in the real world. This helped her to see that what she thought of as a moral absolute wasn’t so sturdy after all. The approach is called taking an idea to its logical conclusion. We do this by asking “what if everyone behaved this way?” To make it clear that the idea in question is unrealistic we insert a negative example, someone we actually don’t want to follow this principle.

before you call me a jerk…

12 Apr

If this blog ever gets enough attention that non-Christians read it, I’ll consider it a success. If you happen to be a non-Christian reader let me explain why I spend my time thinking about and teaching the defense of Christianity and why that doesn’t make me a jerk. One could argue that trying to convince people to believe something else is arrogant (the person doing the convincing assumes he is right) – but one would be arguing in a circle because argumentation involves convincing. No one has a problem with opinions, but but during disagreements most people have a problem with the person who thinks that hers is right!

The rub comes from our inability to disbelieve our beliefs. If we are foundationally committed to something, we can’t act as if we aren’t. I am committed to the truth of the Christian worldview for what I believe are a host of solid reasons. Tucked away in that worldview is this radical notion: if this is true it means life for those who believe and death for those who don’t. Another guiding principle is the notion that every human soul on this planet falls under the category of “neighbor,” a person whom I am instructed to love as if I am caring for myself.

When paired these two ideas necessitate evangelism, or the sharing of the faith. Now I will be first in line to apologize for and complain about the scores of Christians who have brow-beat, yelled, defamed, badgered, cajoled or otherwise used nefarious tactics to try to persuade people to become Christians. What those clowns don’t do however is have any impact on the actual truth content of the Gospel. Jesus either is God, or he is not – and that doesn’t hang on what some street corner preacher says through his megaphone.

To borrow from (and liberally paraphrase) V for Vendetta (the movie): I am writing this blog, teaching Christians, defending the faith and in any way possible promoting the person of Jesus Christ because I love you, even though I don’t know you.

In a vacuum, if the Gospel is true and I didn’t believe it the best possible outcome of my life would be for someone to convince me otherwise.

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