For a time during college I dated a girl who was a Christian but her parents were not. Even then it was clear I was on track to a career in ministry though the path was quite unconventional, meandering through ropes courses, whitewater rapids, and sizable portions of Appalachia. This scenario on one occasion led my own mother to ask, “What do her parents think of what you…do?” Having already pondered this question I replied that while I believed they were by no means opposed to them, her parents definitely regarded my varied exploits with a heightened level of curiosity. “Don’t we all,” said my dear mother, her voice trailing off as she turned to look out the window.
Not long after that the young lady’s opinion of me declined to such an extent that her parents’ opinion no longer mattered. As for my mother I imagine she still wonders exactly what I’ve got up my sleeve even though I now own a home in the I-95 corridor and my circumstances have stabilized considerably over the last 20 years. Likewise I suspect there are others, Christian and not, curious as to my motivation as I’ve taken to beginning conversations with, “Can I just ask you 5 simple questions?”
Each of those 5 questions is loaded of course. When was the last time someone, besides me, asked you to ruminate freely about 1) how you believe the world came into existence or 2) what you believe about God and 3) Jesus? Do others frequently 4) inquire as to your views of life after death or 5) what you would like to ask God point blank if you had the opportunity? I didn’t think so.
Initially subjects tend to suffer mild shock both when asked such questions, and again when afforded the latitude to verbalize their thoughts without being accosted. Christians however are generally traumatized in one of two ways by the project in which I’m involved. On the one hand there are those who love the idea of engaging with such a divergent crowd from their own, but like a lion on the yellow brick road are convinced they themselves lack the necessary courage to do so. Conversely there are faithful skeptics concerned primarily with the bottom line. For these the investment of time doesn’t seem worthwhile apart from demonstrable growth in church attendance, giving, or involvement. Given the significant emotional investment and minimal returns, why bother?
As the impact of orthodox Christianity and traditional (as opposed to political) evangelicalism wanes in America the deficits in many of our church’s evangelism accounts have become painfully obvious. The question thus arises as to how we might compensate for what is lacking. Typically the answer has to do with planning something referred to in Christianese vocabulary as an outreach event.
Outreach events as defined in 21st century evangelicalism are often tawdry affairs easily capable of drawing a crowd. Some modicum of fun entertainment is usually involved. There is normally free food. Such events require weeks of planning and preparation and can be quite costly. The cleanup after the crowd disperses is significant. Despite not having explicitly shared the gospel with anyone weary volunteers try to console themselves with the thought that perhaps someone among the throng caught wind of something remotely spiritual despite attending with no intention of having anything other than a good time. Ironically, though employed as compensation for a lack of evangelism, evangelism rarely takes place within the context of outreach events thus the deficit remains and in fact grows larger.
In regard to addressing the evangelism deficit there needs be a paradigm change capable of addressing the concerns of both the cowardly lion Christian and the skeptical Christian. I’ve mentioned before that the typical American knee-jerk reaction is to address problems with legislation. Consequently, given our problems are often more complex than we care to admit, we are beginning to realize and lament a deficit in civil discourse within the public square. Our ability to have rational conversations that include opposing perspectives appears to have eluded us. The Church is in a similar bind and a deficit in civil discourse only exacerbates the deficit facing the Church. Evangelism is a problem, so to speak. Events, as opposed to relationships, are the knee-jerk solution. Consequently many Christians’ ability to have rational conversations with those of differing perspectives seems beyond our imagination. I know this because when I share stories about the places I’ve been and people I’ve talked to with other Christians their responses are typically either fainthearted or skeptical…and I totally get that. But how do we start to change that paradigm?
I’ve been a Christian as long as I can remember and that has to do mostly with my parents. My mom, whom I chastised for cheering too loudly during my games, who once shared the curiosities of an ex-girlfriend’s parents, and who no doubt wondered whether I might spend all my life living out of the back of my pick-up truck, was used by God to make me a believer in Jesus. She’s not likely the most courageous woman in the world. I know she’s harbored a fair amount of skepticism in regard to some of the moves I’ve made over the years. But she and dad were and are always available to talk. I just have to talk a little louder now is all. And they still remind me that they are praying for me and my family every day.
My point is this: If you are a parent or a grandparent, or if you aspire to be one someday, and you had a 20 minute conversation with your child or grandchild that failed to yield the result you had hoped for, would you give up on that child? Would you be too afraid to continue that conversation later or skeptical as to whether having conversations with your kids was actually a worthwhile practice? I doubt it. You would likely give it some time and space and then come back to it later. You might even plan an event, like a trip to the zoo or a ballgame, but strengthening the relationship would remain your ultimate goal. Relationships after all take a long time. Maybe, realizing a lecture can be counter-productive, you’d simply start the next conversation with…questions.
Jesus asked an inordinate amount of questions, often in spaces where a parent might have given a lecture or I might have given a sermon. We certainly shouldn’t treat those who are not Christians as if they were children. But we should take such care to nurture relationships with them. If ever the Church has had an opportunity to be counter-cultural in a winsomely appealing way, now would be the time; her individual members seeking out genuine friendships with people of differing opinions in a world where communication has been largely reduced to 140 character shouting matches across glowing LED displays. Instead of being so concerned about saying everything just right, there may be merit in our simply asking good questions, listening to the responses, and continuing to pray.