Sitting at my kitchen table, my 20-something friend said, “Can you help me? I’m trying to find a way to describe myself that doesn’t immediately offend people and drive them away. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jesus with all my heart but labeling myself a Christian too early in a conversation or relationship isn’t helpful. What should I do?”
The conversation at the kitchen table was a natural result of a shared experienced we’d had where we saw a very well meaning friend ‘witness’ imploring the listener to go beyond good works. Unfortunately, the approach made both of us cringe. As we analyzed it together, we articulated a few conclusions: to our knowledge there was no prior relationship with the object (person) of the presentation of the Gospel, in fact, no previous interaction at all; and there was an assumption that the person wasn’t a believer in Christ. It was (albeit superficial) a theologically sound appeal to commit to Christ so why would we be embarrassed at this presentation when we know that a commitment to Christ is the most important decision a person can make?
My friend’s question for me was a capstone for a week of thinking deeply about these issues. Like my friend I, too, am finding myself running away from the labels that have, unfortunately, been applied to people like me who take their faith seriously but are finding the labels less and less helpful in our attempt to be ‘relevant’ Christians. Like my friend, I am on a quest to redefine myself avoiding the labels. In an age where many of my age-mates and fellow believers in Christ feel comfortable living in the polarization of our culture, I am looking for ways to feel comfortable in what some people would call ‘gray areas’ that do not promote the polarization but put me in contact with those who need a genuine experience with Christ.
James Hunter in his controversial book, To Change the World, argues that it’s inherently in our Christian DNA to work to make the world a better place. He believes our well-meaning efforts often fail to bring about the very change we want to accomplish. Hunter, from his perspective, does an “appraisal” of the culture change use by well-meaning Christians and goes on to highlight the ways they are “inherently flawed and therefore incapable of generating the change to which they aspire.” Hunter says that all too often Christians migrate toward bases of power and unwittingly undermine the very problems they are designed to solve.
What is really needed, Hunter argues, is a different paradigm of Christian engagement with the world, one that Hunter calls “faithful presence”–an ideal of Christian practice that is not only individual but institutional; a model that plays out not only in all relationships but in our work and all spheres of social life. He offers real-life examples, large and small, of what can be accomplished through the practice of “faithful presence.”
Lausanne, Cape Town, was a major event that took place back in October. It was filled with a who’s who of Christianity from around the world focusing participants on world evangelism. The two worlds I am describing ‘bumped’ into each other early in the Congress.
The first night was dedicated to alleviating poverty. I was a compelling presentation! Many in the 5000+ in attendance resonated with it.
John Piper, in his devotional on one of the subsequent days, reminded every one that doing good works and alleviating suffering in this life was a good ambition…but it was not enough. My memory of his quote on this was, “Current suffering is nothing compared to the suffering people will experience in an eternity without God.” He went on to remind the group that it wasn’t either/or but rather both/and: the Gospel message combined with living out our faith validating God’s love and the message of hope.
My conclusion, after experiencing these two presentation, is that the two are not mutually exclusive but those that promote each will take a very differing approach to the spread of the Gospel. Is either wrong? It’s all about contextualization within the target culture whether is be in Africa or the USA.
I am just finishing the book, The Next Christians, by Gabe Lyons. Someone stuck it in my hand in at Lausanne, Cape Town. Lyon’s book describes my friend precisely: twenty-something; a committed believer who wants to engage, not divide; willing to live out Christian commitment and faith in the midst of a culture that seems to run counter to faith; but my friend isn’t willing to wage war with it. My friends sees faith as more than just a message of hope, although it is that, it is also a message of restoring a broken and fallen world to what God originally intended when he was in the creation mode. God is love, and in that love there is no fear. It’s a restorative love that makes a difference in life here and now. Christianity isn’t just about fire insurance!
I really think there is a healthy discussion going on in my community of faith that is making me more and more comfortable living in the margins and looking for a new way of expressing my beliefs. I encouraged my 20-something friend not to be discouraged. The solution is to become part of what God is doing to remake our culture…but we have to engage it. We have to meet people where they are. We cannot hold the culture accountable to our preconceived ideas and high values of the faith when, unfortunately, too many of us have done too much to wage war with the culture and then we aren’t willing to apply the high standards in our own lives. That promotes another label: hypocrite.
Lyons does a nice job of articulating the reconciliation that comes in a relationship with Christ and the extent to which God goes to be reconciled to the world (Luke 15).
While I resonate strongly with your post, and with your friend’s angst, I am currently struggling with this too. However, my struggles are with faithful presence when the stakes are much higher than people walking away disappointed or upset with me. How do I reconcile my own uncomfortableness with that, when my brothers and sisters globally are being persecuted with significant impact of their safety and wellness, or even are dying.
One friend recently told me of his change when being with a fellow follower in a difficult culture. This follower faced physical harm and death for merely indicating who he was following, yet he was open about it. My friend decided that since all he was risking was deportation, he could be a little less fearful, etc. How does this speak into my life? I am not sure, and it is a wonderful work in progress.
I am sure I have taken a sideways look at the topic of your post, but sometimes we have to be willing to be the brunt of some misunderstandings, and be willing to be a more direct faithful presence that does not compromise. Church planting movements look for the person of peace in the new context. They keep looking until they find them. Paul realized that some people would reject Christ, so he shook his cloak and moved on. Everybody will not respond well, or even like us.
The cartoon on your post is funny and bitter. However, this side of heaven we are all two timing sinners saved by grace. And we still need to call our culture to our savior. Let them call us what they may. Our desire is to set our hearts and eyes on him, and each day that becomes something to live into.
Brent, you are absolutely correct. If we are afraid to speak of Jesus lest people get upset with us, that isn’t what Jesus calls us to. Where I differ with you is that I prefer to create a relationship characterized by love before I mention that I’m a Christian. I do this, because by the time most people have gotten to college and beyond, if they aren’t already Christians, it is likely that some insensitive, unloving Christian has already tried to shove the Gospel down their throat, and they want nothing to do with “religious” people.
Jesus didn’t die on the cross so we wouldn’t experience hell, though that is an effect. He came so that we could be reconciled with our loving Creator, and experience life, love, freedom, grace and so many other wonderful things. If all we do is focus on “fire insurance” as Bob calls it, I think we’ve sorely missed the point. By putting the focus on the fact that “God will throw you into hell for your sins,” completely ignores his love for us. If all I knew about God was this aspect, I would much rather convince myself that it was all a hoax and live life as I see fit. It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance; his love that draws us near. THAT is the message we need to spread.
The cartoon made me think of this quote “But what happened to engagement with those that do not share our strongly healed views? Too often we ‘deamonize’ those that don’t share our worldview.” from a student of political science.