I have been wrestling with how to communicate the Christian faith with the skeptic, agnostic, and atheistic person in San Francisco-Marin. A few of my current observations is that I need to be tactful most of the time and direct some of the time. The trick is to find out when each approach is required. Like an ambassador to a foreign country, different situations demand different approaches.
1) Ambassadors must be tactful
I have found that winsome presentations of the faith and active engagement with questions behind the questions (asking clarifying questions like “what do you mean by that” or “why would you say that”) are very important. As a starting point in conversations surrounding the faith, it’s very important to not come across as a complete douche. Can I get an amen?
But here’s the thing: winsomeness sometimes can veer into the borderlands of being a total pushover and softy. In the end, people need to hear about Jesus and his claims to life. And sometimes (OK, all the time) these claims can be tough to hear! Which leads me to my second lesson.
2) Ambassadors convey messages, even difficult ones
As ambassadors of Jesus, Christians need to convey the difficult nature of following Jesus.
Following Jesus is not all Joel Osteen “Be a better you by buying my 10 redundant and terrifyingly, terrible books” philosophy. Following Jesus demands that we lay down our own lives and pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. And I’m sorry to be the bearer of this news but his will is often not our own will!
Sometimes we need to lay down the cards so that people can see what following Jesus exactly looks like. Sometimes we need to tell those who are on the fence of following Jesus about the demands of discipleship and letting God take care of the rest.
As an ambassador from the USA conveys the message of the president, so the ambassador of the risen Messiah must relay the message of Jesus to a broken world.
3) Ambassadors are not clueless
As an ambassador of Jesus, we must be aware of our cultural context. There will always be those sitting in the pews of churches across America who are not interested in following Jesus, instead they just want to fit in. Yes, there are cultural Christians, even in the middle of thriving churches.
In more progressive cities, there will be more people who feel comfortable not being labelled as Christians. These “nones” now feel comfortable proclaiming their agnostic and atheistic faith (yes, it is a faith). There will always be nominal Christians, it is our job as ambassadors to communicate the good news of Jesus to everyone— even to ourselves.
What tips have you uncovered as an ambassador for the Kingdom of God?
I am in the middle of preparing a brief message on the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of Mark and it reminded about the author’s style in the composition of this account. During my preparation, I was reading in a commentary about the questions surrounding when to date this particular gospel. It ultimately comes down to the rebellion of the Jewish people against the Roman forces and the resulting destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Due to the lack of comments about the destruction of the temple and other clues, scholars place the composition of this book during the Jewish rebellion or before. 50s-60s A.D. is a safe bet for the earliest gospel account (Paul gets the earliest writer of the New Testament award).
Placing the context of the gospel is important for the preacher and leaders within the church (lay-leaders, not necessarily those on staff at a church) because questions will come up. There will be questions concerning the Gospel of Thomas or Judas. There are fragments that seem to imply that Jesus had a wife and there will undoubtedly be many more compromising documents surfacing. I am convinced by the likes of NT Wright that we need to know not only God’s Word, but the context surrounding it.
We need to understand the context and dig into that first century so that we can enrich our own faith and defend the faith when National Geographic runs stories on the Gospel of Judas. Knowing what we believe and why we believe it is not just our pastor’s job or the job of a seminary professor. No, it is our job as the Church. It is your job as the faithful member of your local church and as a leader within the community. There are so many tools at our disposal now, I beg you to consider to dig into the depths of the Christian faith.
What has helped you explore the depths of the faith?
Have you ever noticed that sometimes you need to say the right password to Christians you might meet out and about? Hopefully I’m not just peeing in the wind here, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there are codewords that are needed to be said to let the other person know where you stand.
I began to realize this when, oddly enough, I told people I went to seminary. And apparently Fuller Seminary is “liberal” for the more conservative factions and “fundy” for people who are not actively involved in a church. Apparently affirming the divinity of Christ, the Nicene Creed, and identifying with the life giving words of Jesus is not enough. I needed to say codewords, to let the other person know that I didn’t go off the deep end. It is true that I am digging critically into my faith at seminary, but I know that Christianity has withstood many challenges. Defenders of the faith, from Augustine to CS Lewis to Tim Keller have helped me in working through questions raised by the “New Atheists” and old established religions as well. Yet, if I didn’t say the right password, I would be labelled as someone who lives in an ivory tower and doesn’t belong within evangelicalism.
When a pair of pastors came to our front door and invited us to their church down the street (a Latino-Pentecostal one next to the Sonic (speaking in tongues and great milkshakes in one convenient location!!)), I informed them that we were also fellow Christians. Yet, I needed to further qualify with them. I was a follower of Jesus, and shared the same faith. They were very kind and I enjoyed speaking with them, but that has not always been the case. I have found that associating oneself with a church is important, as is qualifying where I stood in my own relationship with Christ.
It’s true that no one knows the heart of an individual. Sometimes a person can affirm something on the outside without being transformed on the inside. As James would warn us throughout his letter, claiming to have religion or faith is worthless when there is no accompanying outward action. While an individual is reconciled to God through the redemptive work of Christ alone, we are also told that faith without works is a dead faith (James 2.14-17). To use an analogy, a tree that is in good shape will produce good fruit. I guess how we are able to tell if someone is truly a follower of Christ is that they themselves are rooted in the soil of Life, like the tree described in Psalm 1. This tree is planted by streams of water and will, out of that rooted-ness, do good and be transformed slowly but surely into the image of Christ. So next time I meet someone for the first time, I think I’ll offer a measure of grace and humility toward that person. The reason is because that fruit will come about slowly but surely over time and I might not be able to discern it in a brief conversation on a doorstep or airport.
Do you find yourself being labelled? How do you handle that?
I was talking with a friend this week about the dangers and benefits of apologetics (defense of Christianity). If you were raised in an Evangelical church or household, chances are you were given the answers to many questions that you might encounter when it came to talking about Christianity. While the answers might be helpful, I believe that there could be a negative side associated with the robust defense of the faith.
The positive aspect about “Defending your faith” is being able to answer legitimate questions that people might have for you. Removing that obstacle is important, but it is not the only thing! Christians must resist being pulled into a state of Mutually Assured Destruction where we try to win the conversation at the expense of losing the relationship. Regrettably, I have done that and used apologetics as a weapon instead of a scalpel, smashing the opponent instead of carefully removing objections to the faith. Instead of graciously discussing the matter, I have been quick to interject my own opinions into the matter. Instead of listening and being present in a conversation, I have listened for an entry point where I could hit back at the person. Indeed we should reply to charges or questions, even if it is a “I don’t have the answer, but I can go look for one.” Nevertheless, whatever we do, it should be done in a gentle manner.
Being gracious towards the other person should be something that we embody as Christians. Active, gracious listening should be a mark of a follower of Christ in our culture. At all times, giving a reason for the hope that lives within you and me should be done with humility, not a hammer.
(Side note: It is OK if you question Christianity. Historically, Christians have faced the questions posed in our world for centuries now. Our faith is a deeply rooted one, so I would encourage you to think through the problem. Let me know if I can help in any way!)
Do you see any other “Good, the Bad, and The Ugly” in Apologetics?