Monday, June 20, 2005

Three Attributes I Hope Would Always Characterize Christian Faith-Sharing

In yet another well-written piece, novelist and blogger Richard Lawrence Cohen, tells about a Christian coffee house in Midland, Texas, recently discovered by a visiting friend. Richard, who is Jewish, says that he intends to visit the He Brew Cafe the next time he visits Midland.

He concludes the post with this:
Was I upset by the name of the cafe, my friend inquired? Not at all. I’m not one of these contemporary professional ethnics who gets offended at a well–intentioned acknowledgment of my people. I know the difference between hostility and friendship. Sure, they’d like to convert me, but I can take care of myself, and if they ever succeeded -- well, there would have to be a pretty good reason for it, I’ll tell you that.
This got me to thinking about counsel I have occasionally offered the people of our congregation on Christianity and conversion and what Christian evangelism ought to look like. I posted these comments on Richard's site (which he, with customary graciousness, immediately ackowledged, by the way):
There seem to be a lot of these "Christian" coffee houses, some in churches, others in storefronts, cropping up all over the place. Some seem to be high-pressure proselyte-seeking outfits. Others are more gentle places of hospitality and honest conversation.

Roman Catholic groups across the country are holding periodic gatherings, the basic agendas for which are to drink beer and discuss theology. To me, it's an altogether good thing for such discussions to happen beyond the walls of church buildings, to meet the daily realities of people's lives.

But it is true, Richard, that Christians are looking for converts. I hope that this doesn't seem horrifying to people.

I don't think that it should be. After all, when I find a nice restaurant or a good CD or an investment counselor I trust, it's likely that I will tell my friends about them. Over the past few months, for example, I've been telling people about 'Steve and Barry's' and 'Mrs. Meyer's' environmentally-friendly cleaning products and Richard Lawrence Cohen's web site. We "satisfied customers" tend to share our enthusiasms with our friends.

Hopefully though, Christians' sharing of Christ won't be marked by high pressure or the disdain that so embarrasses Christ and the Church.

In fact, one of the things I tell people at our church constantly is that our efforts at "evangelism"--literally, good newsing--should be marked above all, by three attributes.

The first is a sense of humor. This can happen when our efforts aren't rooted in smug self-righteousness or condescending judgments, when we can be honest about our own shortcoming and failings.

My model for this is the apostle Paul. Dragged before authorities, including a royal named King Agrippa, Paul proceeded to tell his own personal story to them, how he, a Pharisee once bitterly opposed to the Christian proclamation, had come to faith in Christ, and the difference this new relationship with God had made in his life. He went on for some time when Agrippa said to him [I'm paraphrasing], "Paul, in so short a time, do you propose to make me like you?" Paul said, "Whether it takes a short or a long time, yes, King Agrippa, I would love for you to be like me...except for these chains." That cracks me up every time I read it.

(By the way, I don't think that this Christian ambition for others to be like us, at least in its authentic meaning, signifies a desire to clone ourselves or make the world over in our images. I readily admit that there are Christians who believe this way and they drive me crazy. I think rather, that Paul is talking about being like him in that he had hope, the sense of God's presence, and the belief that He had what Austin pastor Gerald Mann calls, "God's cosmic okie-dokie" not because he was better than anyone else, but because he surrendered his life to Christ.)

Paul, who had a healthy self-image, could be contentious and cranky, and was apparently an unimpressive, balding physical specimen who could be quite boring when he preached, was absolutely honest about his imperfections. He called himself "the least of the apostles" and one who could not possibly be good enough to earn forgiveness for his sin. No wonder he said what he did to Agrippa!

Another attribute that ought to mark Christian evangelism is an attitude of respect for others. The other giant of early Christian evangelism, like Paul a Hebrew, was Peter. He writes in one of his letters that appear in the New Testament, "Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you, but do it with gentleness and respect..."

In other words, we Christians are to share the Good News of freedom and new life through Jesus not by beating others over the head, but by real person-to-person dialog, dialog in which we are willing to learn as well as which we feel the freedom to say, "I don't know," even as we talk about our best friend, Jesus Christ.

One other element ought to be humility. If Christ was humble enough to wash His disciples' feet and humble enough to submit to a cross He didn't deserve, how can we Christians dare to be arrogant?

I know full well that there are many examples of Christian arrogance in sharing faith. I can be guilty of it myself. But I don't believe that those examples represent Biblical Christianity. The best definition of Christian evangelism that I have ever read says that it's nothing more than "one beggar telling another beggar where to find food." Jesus tells His followers that the "last will be first," which should chasten us when we're tempted to join that chorus John Lennon talked about, all those people hollering "about their own birthday."

Richard, I love it that you say you'd have to have a good reason to convert. My guess is that back in my atheist days, I was a good deal less tolerant than you are. (Tolerance is clearly one of your prominent, and admirable, traits!) But I would have said much the same as you, "I'll have to have a good reason for converting before I'll ever do it." Everyone, in my estimation, should have the same attitude. We have too many genetic religionists, mindlessly embracing the religious attitudes that surround them, whether it's Christianity, hedonism, Judaism, materialism, whatever. What we need are people who don't play at their faith, but approach it with the earnestness and significance it deserves. Good for you!

[I hope that I didn't go on too long with this comment. I read your post and wrote this piece during my lunch break and decided not to edit it significantly. I'm not a good enough writer, I suppose, to shorten it that much anyway.]

No comments: