Archive | Conversations RSS feed for this section

Is it wrong to talk to strangers?

22 Apr
Run. Always run.

Run. Always run.

Last week I got into a conversation with a friend about whether or not Christians should approach people with whom they have no relationship in order to share the Gospel. We got onto the subject in the context of a training I assigned, asking students to go find someone and simply ask “What do you think about Jesus?” using questions rather than statements to steer the subsequent conversations.

The argument against talking to strangers was rooted in several factors, but the ones that emerged as the most deeply felt were: possible harm done by freaking people out/upsetting them, no relational context for follow up, ineffectiveness of the strategy, no prompting from God to do it – an arbitrary task, and a lack of scriptural precedent.

If these things were all true then I would agree that we should probably not talk to people we don’t already know, however this just doesn’t seem to be the case in my opinion. I’ll briefly look at each objection.

Damaging the cause of the Gospel

The type of person who could do damage in a 2 minute conversation is probably the same type who would do it in a relationship. Similarly, a humble and winsome approach should diffuse any tension – even if the conversation is awkward. In the worst case scenario, the approached person should walk away saying “Well, at least that Christian was less annoying that the usual type.” It’s not the duration of the conversation or our relational status entering the conversation that matters but how we treat the person we’re in dialogue with. (SPOILER ALERT: we should treat them with dignity and respect)

Some object that a particular church does contact evangelism and their ministry is doing more harm than good. The same response works here though: that church we have issues with probably still prays and reads the Bible. We aren’t going to abandon those core pillars of the faith because someone we disagree with practices them as well, and I don’t think we should abandon the practice of approaching folks we don’t know just because some churches may be terrible at it.

No relational context

This is an easy fix: give them your email address. If they don’t live in the same town, and they’re actually interested in following up you can help connect them with a local church in the area if you know anyone there, or at least use your network to try to find one that would be welcoming. Even in the worst of “hit-and-run” scenarios the seed sown might be cultivated by someone else. It might be less effective, but that doesn’t make it wrong or totally ineffective.

Ineffectiveness

Being a witness is not like being a middle manager at some company: our goals aren’t efficiency and results. Our goal is obedience. I agree that sharing the faith in the context of an established and ongoing relationship is more effective, but again this doesn’t render talking to a stranger ineffective or pointless. Part of the intended outcome of the exercise was for the student leaders to grow in their conversational evangelism skills in a low stakes environment. Even if the folks they engaged with remained uninterested, the students took a risk, became more comfortable in conversation, and maybe heard something they weren’t prepared to deal with that will spur reflection and study.

No prompting from God

The simple truth is that we rarely hear the audible voice of God commanding us to do something, and we rarely find ourselves drawn to something that is unnatural and risky for us. If we are waiting for that moment where we feel totally compelled we will likely wait in perpetuity. I consider being a witness a discipline just like praying and reflecting on the Word. There are times when I don’t feel like doing those things but know the outcome will be good (even if I don’t have a mind blowing God moment), and so I do them. In the same way it is worthwhile (though not necessary) to be in the habit of occasionally risking some comfort to engage with a person who you otherwise would not. It will grow and stretch you and can possibly impact the person who you speak with.

Lack of Scriptural precedent

This one surprised me because I feel like there is scriptural precedent all over the place. Jesus sends out the 72 in Luke 10, Jesus talks to the random woman at the well in John 4, Jesus talks to Zacchaeus in the tree. Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. There are probably more, these are just the examples that occur to me off the top of my head.

Jesus commands us to go into all the world and make disciples. Paul explains that people can’t believe unless there is someone to teach them the truth. These are universal commands that always apply and aren’t nullified simply because we haven’t already met someone.

Conclusion

It doesn’t invalidate your faith if you don’t talk to strangers, and I know some people have done an awful (read: “super, duper, awful!) job of approaching people in the past – but we don’t have to own that. It will grow you as an individual and could impact someone else’s spiritual trajectory. There is no downside other than fleeting embarrassment as long as you remember to not be a jerk.

You’re a Christian because you’re American!

21 Mar

This post will conclude the series examining some recent interactions I had on Facebook. The first two are here and here. One of the objections that cropped up in several forms (and also appeared in the comments section of a recent post) has to do with the sociological causes of belief. In his book “Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All?” James sire distinguishes between reasons for belief and causes. When asked to explain why people believe what they do, most people respond with things like family, culture, place of birth, etc. Sire believes that these aren’t reasons at all, they are causes. Here is one of the comments from the thread last week: muhrica son

The objection here is less severe than the objection from my comments section the other day (“Why are you a Christian? Because you were born in America.”) The objection isn’t actually on the surface, it’s implied; the logic looks like this:

1)      There are many religions, each dominant in different parts of the world

2)      Each religion claims it is the correct path to God

3)      Therefore, thinking you are on the correct path to God is a product of where you are born.

american-jesus

Jesus loves everyone, Americans included; but he isn’t from here guys…sorry.

Another subtle and more insidious assumption is that we have no way to discern religious knowledge: it’s assumed such a thing doesn’t exist! The sheer fact of a plurality of religions is seen as a trump card which proves that none of them could be right. However, just because people disagree on something doesn’t mean that both of them must be wrong.

My reply has always been that while people’s religious affiliation is caused by their sociological circumstances, they are free to accept or reject this. This happens frequently as there are plenty of Christians in Africa, Muslims in London and Buddhists in the United States. What matters isn’t the cause of religious belief but whether the reasons we hold for accepting or rejecting the belief of our upbringing are sound. There will never be any proof, and we are all inclined to be convinced by data that supports beliefs we already hold. That being said, people change their deeply held beliefs and values in the face of new information all the time – and this happens with matters of faith too.

I believe Jesus is the only way to God not because I was born in Roanoke, Virginia or because I am a white male but because the human condition, the circumstances of our universe and the facts of history are best explained by this solution.

Attempting to re-route a conversation

20 Mar

Monday I wrote about stirring the pot a little bit on a Facebook post, and mentioned that some of the comments were worth reflecting on. The first that really stuck out to me was this one:

“…you read through the Bible and find stories of it supporting mass genocide, slavery, incest and adultery.”

The implicit objection is: The Bible isn’t a good source of moral truth because it endorses actions which are clearly immoral.

My first instinct is to make a nuanced defense of God’s goodness in light of the above accusations – which is not difficult to do, but would likely fall on deaf ears. Simply conceding (or ignoring the accusation, which is the same as conceding) is also not an option. I remembered my favorite advice about spiritual conversations: ask questions; and tried asking (what I thought to be) a provocative question. I simply responded by asking “on your view, what is wrong with mass genocide, murder and incest?”

The night wasn't THAT slow, and yes - I did ask you that.

The night wasn’t THAT slow, and yes – I did ask you that.

I did this to get them to ground their (implied) assertion that objective moral values exist. What I know is that an atheistic framework provides no ground for believing there are objective morals. Using words like ‘right, wrong, should, and ought’ means the atheist is trading with borrowed commodities.

**Aside – this doesn’t mean ‘atheists are bad people’ or ‘you need the Bible to know right from wrong.’ Everyone has access to moral knowledge. My question points at the foundation or grounding of that knowledge: what makes something right (or wrong)?**

No one had an answer for me. Several guys kept saying that a person with empathy wouldn’t need to ask that question. I responded that empathy just means understanding another person’s feelings, and I still wanted to know what was morally wrong about causing pain and/or death.

Ultimately no one had an answer because you can’t get there. See my earlier posts on objective morality here for more info, or leave a comment if you disagree.

This may or may not have been the best approach, but the lesson for me is that we shouldn’t feel the need to always launch into a defense (even if one can be made). Instead we can look for questions that might help our cause.  Asking a question keeps people engaged, keeps us from doing all the heavy lifting and helps to clarify the points being addressed.

Resource:

A cursory google search will help you if you’re looking for answers to the ‘immoral God’ objection above. If you’re looking for a full length treatment I highly recommend “God Behaving Badly” from Intervarsity Press.

My Faith is my own thing…

7 Mar

Heard in conversation the other week: “Yeah I have faith, but it’s my own thing.”

About half the time people tell me this, they don’t actually have any meaningful faith (i.e. they can’t point to any difference in their lives as a result of their faith nor can they point to what it means to them). The other half of the time the God people are worshipping is some creation of their own mind usually resembling a kind cosmic grandpa. As always, I respect people’s right to disagree with me – but I do think that both these approaches are wrong and that these folks are missing out on the experience of worshipping the true God, having a relationship with him, and doing this in the context of a community.

What’s so bad about having my own thing?

I have two issues: first, since you invented the thing – it’s unlikely to be true. Unless you invented God, in which case – you ARE God. I am all for creativity and I don’t think people who know me would accuse me of falling lockstep into any ideology or crowd. That being said, when it comes to worldview – specifically the faith based aspects of worldview – it’s ok to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Again, bucking an established religious trend doesn’t make you wrong; bucking all established religious trends and still saying you have faith in something probably does.hiding

Second, if it’s only your thing then no one else can join you. This seems like a lonely experience. I believe we were designed to be in community with other people in every aspect of our lives: work, family, friends, and faith. Just because my faith is personal, it certainly isn’t private.

How to engage these notions in conversation

There is no set program or response, I’ve had success with things I thought would fail and vice versa. Similarly, things that have been meaningful for some have been inconsequential for others. People are individuals and treating them as such is of paramount importance. Some questions I like to ask include the following:

  • You say your faith doesn’t really impact your day to day life, would you like it to? I think God is ready and willing to interact with you if you’re interested.
  • If you like God, but reject all the traditions about his nature then where does your understanding of God come from?
  • Is it possible that if God exists he could reveal some of his personality to us? (yes) What do you think that would look like?
  • I agree that faith is a deeply personal thing, but I don’t think it’s meant to be private. How would you invite your future spouse or children to participate in something that is exclusively your own thing?

Obviously this list isn’t exhaustive, but if you’re looking for some starting ground for this common objection then these questions could help.

Challenging moral relativism in conversation…

6 Mar

If you agreed with my post on Monday about why it’s worth taking a stand for moral realism, you might wonder how best to challenge that in conversation. As always, I advocate asking “What do you mean” and “how do you know” to encourage your friend to make a clear assertion and explain why they believe what they believe. After that you can begin to challenge the assertion, but again I advocate using questions.

A recent conversation I had included this statement:

“It’s ok to say it’s wrong, but it’s not ok to force that on them…”

This woman’s belief in moral relativism stemmed from her knowledge that different cultures operate in different ways, and her belief that one culture should not infringe upon another. The “it” in question is the Indian practice of sati: the ritual burning of a widow upon her husband’s funeral pyre. The act is said to be voluntary but accounts indicate that this was not always the case. I like bringing up sati because the British were the driving force behind its disappearance. In general they were imperialist, and enforced their culture at times and places when there was no benefit; however the outlaw of sati remains a positive. (This is a simplification – read the Wiki article for more information). The above response came from the following question:

“Isn’t it possible to look at a lot of what the British did and say ‘wow, they shouldn’t have imposed their culture in that way’ and ALSO look at the outlawing of sati and say ‘wow, I’m sure glad they did that’”?

She reasoned that causing people to doubt their beliefs would lead to the breakdown of a particular culture or society. I think the opposite. Jettisoning our false/evil practices and adopting true/good ones from other cultures will advance all cultures. (Of course, not many cultural practices fit neatly into these categories – but sati does).

So that’s one option – ask about a behavior or practice that is clearly wrong and see if they stick to their relativistic guns.

A second route is to ask about something the person actually cares about – maybe they’re very environmentally savvy and you could ask how they would feel about a corporation dumping waste into a river. Maybe they were the victims of bullying and you can ask if you thought the bullies deserved some sort of punishment even though they were just doing what they thought was ok. Our house and cars have been robbed, and I can tell you from experience that I felt legitimate anger over that event. Find their hot-button issue and make it morally relative. This points back to the importance of relationship and time investment. The better you know your friend the easier it will be to relate abstract debates to their own story.

...and there are absolutely NO absolutes!

…and there are absolutely NO absolutes!

The trump card, so to speak is the response above and ones like it which say “I can call it wrong, but I can’t say it’s wrong for them.”

I am super annoyed by these folk. If they are unwilling to admit that gross moral horror is legitimately wrong (torturing a baby for fun, stealing a starving persons food just to destroy it in front of them) then you have reached an actual impasse. I typically respond by saying, “it’s a good thing that your actions don’t align with what you say at all – or I’d be afraid of you. As it stands, you just seem to say one thing (morality is relative) and believe another (morality is absolute) – which is an indication that your foundational beliefs need adjusting to fit real life.”

Sometimes this hits home, and sometimes it doesn’t. You can ask if they think the guilty should be convicted (they do) and why (because they’re breaking the law) – then asking if the law is arbitrary or if it is reflective of an abstract moral law that exists whether we acknowledge it or not…but you’re probably wasting breath and time at that point. Thankfully, not many folks will go this far. Instead they’ll see that there is a disconnect between their beliefs and the real world and you can help them make sense of that.

For further reading I highly suggest Relativism: Feet firmly planted in mid-air by Beckwith and Koukl. It’s not new, but the material still holds up.

%d bloggers like this: