What Would It Take? By Patti Duckworth, Associate Executive Minister
At the All Region Ministry Conference this past May, we had some great training and encouragement about sharing Christ within relationships we already have. I have become increasingly aware of the gaping gulf between where I am in my understanding and experience with Christ and where most other “not-yet-believers” I know are. Without being judgmental or egotistical, a little reflection shows we have VERY different mindsets. Where I would say, “yep, there is one God who loves us all in Christ,” they would honestly say, “God who?”
Almost every “not-yet-follower” I know is through teaching an occasional college course in ethics, religion or philosophy at Malmstrom Air Force Base. Those interactions keep me grounded in the reality that our mission as followers of Christ and churches is immensely and eternally important. This summer there are five in the Intro to Religion class. All have some kind of past church experience, but what they have volunteered during class indicates they all fit the “de-churched” category. The level of “de-churched” ranges from “still interested but spouse is agnostic” to self-defined atheism. This past week, we met at a coffee shop to discuss the chapter on religion and ethics. At the end, they agreed to reflect on three general questions with the understanding that there were no right or wrong answers, just an articulation of what they see around them or their experiences and thoughts. Here is a summary of their answers, representing attitudes and beliefs of most regular, under 40 folks in a part of the Northwest.
Before you read the summary of their answers, let me share with you the context of some of the words in the questions. First of all, for the past six weeks we’ve been talking about different ways of looking at religion; for example, from psychological, sociological or historical points of view. These questions were meant to bring out what the individuals themselves thought: “what do YOU think?” Secondly, the questions were framed to ask about others so they did not have to share what they themselves thought if they did not want: “why are PEOPLE interested?” The word “interested” is open to interpretation and so allowed for open-ended responses. Third, during the term I have used “God” to encompass and acknowledge the wide varieties of concepts about God. I did not use the term “religion” because to many it conveys an organization or an institution.
With that understanding, here are the three questions I asked and the summary of their answers:
- Why do you think people are interested in “God”?
- People are looking for answers to stuff that happens in life and doesn’t make any sense.
- Some people are just curious about the whole religion thing or like that kind of stuff.
- Why do you think people are NOT interested in “God”?
- People don’t care about religion. “Half the people I know don’t want to be bothered.”
- Hypocrisy among people who say they believe. When I asked what they meant by that they agreed that when people make mistakes that’s okay. It’s when “believers” intentionally break their own rules and then shrug it off or excuse it with some rationalization.
- Immediately after that point, someone said “the standards are too high.” Again, the group agreed; the discussion revealed that high standards are good as long as there is help to attain them AND the reason for them is clear and made some sense.
- “Being religious causes problems between people.” Discussion revealed that a) people use their religion to get power over people and b) being religious caused problems in families. (Everyone had a personal example of this.) In addition, religion has been hijacked by culture and so it doesn’t have any validity.
- “There are no real answers.” What they described was “googling” questions but there were so many contradictions, nothing made sense. Further, most felt sacred books like the Bible are “outdated” because they don’t clearly address modern issues.
- What do you think it takes or what would it take for people to be interested in “God”?
- One person said quite bluntly, “If there was a physical manifestation, then I would be glad to believe.” To that was added, “It would help if a bunch of people could see the same thing.”
- Some major event or a life/death situation in which “God” intervened.
- Some kind of spiritual experience, but what exactly that would look like was unclear.
- Having some kind of frame of reference for it that makes sense.
What Sticks with Me
These things may or may not be news to you. For me, there wasn’t a lot of “news” or learning something I hadn’t already suspected or been told by researchers like Tom Bandy or Gary MacIntosh. However, three things did get my attention and moved me deeply:
- We don’t hold ourselves personally to the standards of behavior we claim. Apparently, our lack of integrity and excusing our sinful behavior are very off-putting and gives “not-yet believers” excuses not to follow Christ. Perhaps they have been jaded by a cynical culture that already looks to discredit us. But is dismissing this critic another way to excuse ourselves and rationalize our behavior? Sin is not private; not becoming more Christ-like can have eternal consequences for other people.
- Apparently we Christians need to talk and learn more among ourselves about how we are going to treat others in our close circles who aren’t Christians. While I don’t think I’m particularly judgmental about unbelieving people, this made me want to pay more attention and be certain that I am offering an invitation and not bringing an indictment.
- The answers to why people aren’t interested in “God” dealt mostly with the behavior of religious people while the answers to what it would take to be interested in “God” did not reference interactions with people at all. Putting those two pieces together makes me wonder if our culture isn’t begging us to live according to our beliefs and experience with Christ and not live like everyone else.
Perhaps that has been an intriguing story that has your attention. But now what? What do I hope you will do now?
First, have this same conversation with someone who is outside the typical circles of the church, any church. Resist jumping on their answers. Instead, focus on caring about what that person really thinks and just listen. Be really curious and guard against manipulating the conversation. Maintaining integrity and really hearing people demands focusing on them and their thoughts. If they ask you what you think, tell them you’d be happy to share that later sometime, but you are really interested in what they think. If it feels like you need to say something, just ask another question. And then listen some more. Let their answers, their faces, their questions and uncertainty, their frustrations become close enough to you to move you, to bother you.
Second, through prayer, do something as a result of the thoughts shared with you. The action you take next should come as a direct result of asking for the Lord’s plan. To do nothing will indicate that you are really into yourself, that your curiosity was about satisfying some personal whim. The action may be suggested by the responses. Pay attention to any of the responses in which the person might talk about themselves. The person might say, “I don’t know what to believe; everyone has a different idea about what’s right.” A response could be something like, “in the midst of all those different ideas, what makes the most sense to you?” Demonstrate real care by listening. Then saying “Christ is the One who meets those needs and answers those questions” will be heard as genuine. The follow up action may be a simple offer for another discussion. That is what I am planning to do.
If it seems like asking the questions is easier than doing something about the answers, you are right. Finding ways to interact with people about their thoughts, their needs is the goal. What is great about this approach is that, at first, you don’t need lots of “answers.” What you need is care for and interest in the other person. The interaction may develop into a life-long relationship; it may only last for a short time. It may lead to an immediate encounter with Christ; it may be that you only walk with them a short time on their way to Christ. The Lord is in charge of the duration and the outcome; the Lord has given us the responsibility of grace-filled, for-the-benefit-of-others action.
No one to ask, you say? I am almost 100% convinced there are people in your daily or weekly encounters you can ask. You just may not be seeing them, so pray the Lord will put you in a place to encounter and see them. If you aren’t quite sure how to begin the conversation, you could say, “I don’t know if you are aware of it but I’m a follower of Jesus and go to church and all that. I have been thinking about life things lately and wonder if I could ask you what you think.” If the person says yes, then use the questions above. If that doesn’t work for you, I would invite you to put it on me! Say something like, “I know this person who sometimes teaches college religion courses and has asked for help with some informal research. Could I ask you three questions?” Assure them it’s all anonymous.
Either way, you are invited to share your responses with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps I can share the outcomes we experience in the near future.
If you will ask those questions of others with the spirit of prayer and an open heart, I’m sure you’ll have some unexpected encounters and doors will begin open to invite people to encounter Jesus. If you don’t ask the questions, let the above answers guide your conversation the next time you talk with someone not yet a follower of Christ.