Over on Philosoraptor, Carol Roper has an open letter to theists entitled Sick and Tired of God Talk. Carol talks about how tired she is of various standard questions from theists, general theists who want to convert her, and in this country one would assume mostly Christian theists. Carol is an adamant atheist, and she finds these people and their words and behavior annoying.
I’ve been planning to write a response to this essay for more than a year, if I remember correctly, but I haven’t gotten around to it. My response is not directed at Carol. After all, she knows what annoys her and what doesn’t, and I’m not about to try to tell her what’s what. But reading her article suggested some things that Christians do that I think are quite annoying and also counterproductive.
There seems to be a divide between some Christians who want to push themselves on everyone in a frantic race to convert and bring into church membership as many people as possible. “Jesus is coming back,” they think, “and he’s going to accidentally fry a bunch of people if I don’t get busy.” The answer, they seem to think, is to work on the statistics as fast as possible. Going door to door or randomly down the street and confronting people with what they think is the gospel is the only way they can see to really get into action and catch all those people before they go to hell. Their level of panic is matched on the other side by people who are quite apathetic. To hear them, Christianity is a dirty secret that one ought to keep as quiet as possible. Jesus may be returning, but he’ll have to deal personally with the people, because these folks aren’t going to do anything.
The first group supports their behavior by claiming that the gospel does offend people, and if they share the Good News with someone and they become offended, its not their problem. They gave the warning! But the question is, is it the gospel message that’s offending people, or is it you and your behavior? Studies have shown that people who are persuaded to accept Jesus as their savior by means of manipulative monologue generally do not stay in the church, while those who enter the church through a relationship with an individual Christian normally do stay. (My copy is loaned out right now, but you can find extensive discussion of this issue in Faith-Sharing, by Fox & Morris.)
I mention this because I think it shows that the frantic, manipulative method of witnessing is ineffective, even when measured by numbers. I don’t think measuring by numbers is the appropriate way for a Christian to measure witnessing. A witness is about being obedient to God. The fruit of that may show in your challenge to others to behave better, to help others more, or to think more seriously about spiritual issues. You may never see any fruit that you can hang on your church wall, so to speak. Fruit is God’s measuring stick, not yours. If we remembered this as Christians, we would cause far fewer problems.
The usual excuse is simply that we are commanded to be witnesses and to make disciples, so how can we stop? I am absolutely not telling anyone to stop witnessing. In fact, I don’t think you can stop. If you are a Christian, you are a witness. The question is what kind of witness you are going to be.
I’m also not saying that everyone on the street or knocking on a door is a pest. There are many legitimate reasons to do this sort of thing. If you are truly there to help, that’s one thing. If you are there to teach them your theology, that’s another.
A person who is so apathetic that most people don’t know of they are a Christian at all sends the message that Christianity is a sort of sideline that has a very low priority in their life. Christians are, to borrow the words of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “mostly harmless,” but they also aren’t much good for antything.
A person who is frantic, and portrays panic, while bumbiling ineffectually from person to person sends the message that Christianity is a group of people in a panic, afraid that the world will end. Not only that, they have a God who is not really prepared for the end. These Christians portray their faith as something that is actually dangerous to the world, as they live their lives contrary to the command of Jesus, as though the world would end at any moment. Ecology? Who cares? Jesus is coming. Social Security headed for bankruptcy? Don’t worry! Jesus will come before I need it!
So how does one manage to witness without being a pest?
Start by living your faith. Christianity worships God as creator and upholder of all that is (Hebrews 1:1-3), and also as a God who offers unearned favor to humanity, so much so as to cross the gap between infinity and the finite in Jesus Christ, who showed to us what God was like. We needn’t be in a panic.
Love your neighbor. This does not mean to sneak your way into your neighbor’s heart so you can convert him. It means that you build relationships because you love and value people. People will know if you are insincere. If you live up to your Christian principles and don’t make your Christianity either a secret or a wall between you and your friend, you are being a witness.
Learn to speak other spiritual languages. By this I mean to learn to talk about topics of interest in terms that the other person understands. Even as a Christian I am offended when a politician uses his or her faith as lever to get my support. I don’t know the sincerity of those faith claims. But if a candidate, of any faith or none at all, has lived according to certain principles, that is something I can understand and test. In communicating with a non-Christian, for example, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) is probably not the best question to ask. But if you think that your Christian principles are also good principles, perhaps you can find a way to express those good ideas other than by claiming they are divine commands. You are not denying Jesus just because you argue for his moral principles based on something other than the fact that he gave them as commands.
Learn the basis for your faith. This may not be the same as the basis for my faith. What brought you to your position of faith? Are you confident of that? Your personal testimony is more important than any amount of logical argument. If you are not an apologist by nature or training, you don’t have to behave like one. (An apologist is one who answers questions about the Christian faith professionally.) When people ask, answer for yourself. That’s not waffling. That’s just talking about what you know.
Wait for questions. If you live a life that is a good witness, inevitably people will ask something about your beliefs. That is your opportunity to answer. But remember it is not your opportunity to manipulate them. You believe that your Christian experience is a good thing, and it’s natural for you to want to share. When someone asks that means they want you to share. Then is when it’s fine.
Don’t resort to force. Many Christians today are trying to get the government to do their job for them. By this I mean by advocating state-sponsored, teacher led prayer in public schools, public displays of religious documents such as the Ten Commandments, introduction of intelligent design into the schools, and radical action against abortion and abortion clinics. I think all of those things demonstrate that we don’t really believe in the power of the gospel shared with the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. We think we need to use force in society just as we sometimes use manipulative language and behavior in our personal witness. Be a witness. Then let God do his part.
Think about it this way. You might be a pest, rather than a witness if:
- You knock on doors belonging to people you don’t know, but can’t name your own next door neighbors
- You know all the details of soteriology*, but don’t know where to get help for a homeless person
- You think salvation is equivalent to joining your church congregation
- You talk to people you despise so you can “save” them, and yet continue to despise them
- You’re sure your relationship with Jesus makes you more special than everybody else
- The only language you know how to speak is “church-ese”
- You set a mental timer counting down until you will break off a friendship if the stubborn jerk doesn’t accept Jesus
- You can’t carry on any conversation that isn’t about your religion
- You try to befriend someone only because you think you can get him to attend church
*If you have to ask what that is, you’re probably a pretty reasonable person to talk to!