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.

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