Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Click to return religion to factory default settings...

Recently I was reading an article from the George Barna group, in which the contention was made that Christianity was no longer America's "default" religion. Much as it was usually assumed that if you were of a particular nationality, you were of a particular religion (ie, Irish were Catholics, Arabs were Muslims, residents of Lakeland, FL were Methodists), it was typically assumed that Americans were some form of Christian.

Now Barna's survey (at least this one...they do so many...) does not deal directly with the stats on who claims what faith, but rather handles a more perceptual issue. "The survey shows half of Americans believe the Christian faith no longer has a lock on people’s hearts. Overall, 50% of the adults interviewed agreed that Christianity is no longer the faith that Americans automatically accept as their personal faith, while just 44% disagreed and 6% were not sure."

They also explore stats based on region, denomination, and ethnicity. On the other hand, they also note that 74% of adults surveyed agree that their faith is the most important factor in determining their morality.

Now, there are lies, outrageous lies, and statistics, but let me play with that for just a second. If Christianity is the default religion of our country, you can make the assumption that your neighbor at least understands the basic tennets of the faith, even if they are the one guy in town who would never darken the door of the church. Which defines your evangelistic technique in a way. Because then yoAur goal is to take the knowledge Billy already has, and move them to make a decision based on it. Much 18th and 19th (and, well, 20th) century evangelism was based on this idea. You know about heaven and hell...so what would happen if you died tonight? "Smoking or non?" Or so goes most bumper sticker evangelistic efforts. They were pushy, not to be mean, but because your target audience was sitting on the fence of faith, maybe even putting it off til they were older.

But we live in different times, which call for different ways of explaining the same Gospel.

1Co 9:19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
1Co 9:20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.
1Co 9:21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.
1Co 9:22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
1Co 9:23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Nowadays, we can't make the same assumption that we used to. Your neighbor is as likely as not to have grown up in church. They may have a basic understanding of Jesus, they may not. They may have an informed understanding of Christianity, or they might only know what they see on TV. They might have had a good church experience, a bad church experience, or no church experience. They may even have a set of beliefs already, as a Buddhist, a Wiccan, a Muslim. Or they may be in that ever growing category of people in our country who proclaim themselves "spiritual but not religious." The fact is, until you start talking, you have no idea.

Our current pluralism in this country is not unlike that which Paul was living with. On any given day, he was running into Jews, but also Greeks and Romans with an amazing diversity of religious beliefs...in different pagan gods...in mystery religions...in philosophical systems that may or may not include deities. And to each of these, he took a different approach. With Jews, he might point to Christ as the fulfillment of prophecy. To Greeks, perhaps the Unknown God they had built an altar to centuries before. But it varied. You couldn't convince a Roman based on Messianic promises...but you might be able to appeal to something else, once you got to know them.

All that to say...probably our best evangelistic tool today is listening. Because in order to understand how to share with someone about Christ, we first need to understand what they do and don't know. Maybe their experience of church has been judgement and condemnation. Best not to start with explaining how much of a sinner they are...maybe they need to hear more of Christ's sacrificial love for them instead. Maybe they've found comfort believing in Allah, because the structure of Islam guides them. So understanding their journey to get there might reveal that along the way, nobody's ever explained that our God has a plan for their life, and that Jesus was more than just a prophet.

Assumption is the absolute worst thing we can do as we share our faith. Assuming that the gal at Winn-Dixie is a Christian. Assuming you never see Paul at church because he just likes to fish on Sundays (as opposed to how his church growing up treated his dad when he was out of work). Assuming that people just need to "make a decision," when they may not have all the facts in the first place. The same "safe" assumptions that guided us before aren't necessarily true today.

So if you want to share your faith, start by asking questions...good, caring questions. And go lovingly from there.

1 comment:

David said...

David, you said it exactly right: "All that to say...probably our best evangelistic tool today is listening. Because in order to understand how to share with someone about Christ, we first need to understand what they do and don't know." I couldn't agree with you more. thanks for using our stats to reflect on evangelism for today. best to you, David Kinnaman from Barna Group