It’s because you don’t know how.
Last weekend I was at a workshop for church leaders, and it focused on mission and evangelism. The leader of the workshop asked the question:
“What makes it difficult to share your faith with others outside of the church?”
Now, some demographic information about who was in the room at this workshop:
- There were probably 5-7 people in a room of 100 who were under 40.
- 100% of the room was white.
- It was about 50/50 urban/suburban.
- It was about 50% officially welcoming of GLBTQA persons.
When they answered this question, and brought it back to the wider group, there was an overwhelming consensus among these people that they weren’t able to share their faith with others because the outside climate was afraid of Christianity.
They thought it was the outside climate of a diversifying culture, biased against Christianity, that kept their mouths shut.
It would be politically incorrect and offensive, if not downright wrong, to share their faith with others in an environment outside of the church. They struggled with the idea of bringing their faith out into a diverse world because they thought that they might offend someone.
Friends, I call bull on that one.
Any time you are blaming the outside culture for not ‘allowing’ you to speak up for your faith, that’s a cop out. The only reason this might be true is if that culture is intentionally protecting a vulnerable person: for instance, why teachers can’t preach in their classrooms.
Our culture is incredibly, if not annoyingly, curious about who we are and why we do what we do. It’s our failure to engage in these conversations that makes it hard to share who we are. We don’t want to do the work necessary to meet the culture where it is, so we say that we are ‘offensive’ if we talk about it at all.
Our culture has changed. And, we do not want to be associated with the types of Christianity that do not share our values of inclusion, respect, and welcome. But, I think it’s those very things that are causing us to fail to tell our story.
1: We don’t know the basics of our faith.
Prior to my generation, we lived in a culture that had a basic understanding of Christianity and Church just built in. Everyone in America sort of understood what Christians believe. That isn’t true anymore. We now have people from all faiths here, who have no exposure to Christianity. Our culture is also now drastically disconnected from “Christendom”, and they don’t know why we do what we do. We need to be able to explain the basics of what Christianity is. Many of us can’t, because we never had to before. This is especially difficult for mainline Christians. Think about it, seriously. If a stranger asked,”What is Christianity?” do you think you could answer?
We don’t have adequate adult education in our churches (or children’s education, but that’s another topic.) We don’t read enough of the Bible to know what it’s about. We go through the motions of our services without ever wondering why we do what we do. Want to gain some respect? Go find out.
2: We aren’t telling our stories at church.
If we aren’t given ways to discuss why we do what we do within the safety of our own faith community, how can we talk about it with others? Churches have an obligation and a call to help others develop their stories in their walls. We have a call to create a community where people can be Christian and learn how to talk about it.
3: We’re afraid of being politically incorrect.
Case in point: in Minnesota we now have a huge population of Muslims. 20 years ago there were almost no Muslims here, but now we have the largest population of Somalis in the United States. Many of them have no clue what Christianity is–or it’s just what they assume tells all the white people to hate their guts.
In our conversation at the workshop, there seemed to be a great deal of fear about talking about religion with people of other faiths. That’s probably for good reason–Christianity has a bad wrap for busting in and destroying the faiths of others.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t actually explain why we, personally, do what we do. I would say that the Muslims I know have been some of the most inquisitive about Christian beliefs, some of the most curious about what we believe and do. And, then they share their beliefs with me–it’s a mutual give and take out of plain curiosity. Once relationships are developed with people, they want to know more about you.
In a newly diverse culture, we can only learn to live together by sharing who we are.
4: We aren’t sure how to translate back and forth between Churchanese and Regular Talk.
Reading the room is essential when you’re talking about faith outside of the church. Any religion is another language, and you don’t start speaking another language until you trust that someone understands that language–especially in the way that you intend it.
When I tell my story, I translate it a little bit every time. In the Church, I talk about how I experience the great brokenness of myself and the world. I talk about experiences in my life that made me need desperately to believe in a God that walked with us. I talk about how I found healing in communion, and this idea that God feeds us with his own self.
With my friends, who don’t understand or care for any of that language, I tell a different story. I talk about how I struggle with depression and loneliness, and how the rituals and community in the church helps me heal and feel whole. I talk about how important it is to me, when I feel hopeless, to believe in a God decided to become human to prove to us that there is always hope.
5: We spend a lot of time saying who we’re not, and no time saying who we are.
There is one thing that prevails, which I have yet to mention. I think many of us are terrified of sounding like an evangelical or pentecostal missionary. We do not want to be associated with that type of Christianity.
To that, I say: If you don’t speak up, those voices just get louder. Nothing replaces them, and nothing tones them down. And if you spend all your time refuting them, rather than saying who you are, they really only get reinforced in people’s minds.
Get rid of the “I’m Christian, but I’m not…” Create positive statements that make it clear what you are not, so you don’t have to say it. People will ask you that stuff anyway.
So, I want to drive home–it’s not those people out there who are making it hard for us. We are failing to rise to the occasion. It is not easy to share who you are, especially if you don’t know. Churches need to be helping others tell their stories: giving them the information about who they are as Christians, providing forums to tell their stories, and encouraging meaningful listening and interaction with others outside of the faith community. Above all, we need to recognize that the world is curious, the culture is curious, and we can gain so much from engaging that curiosity.