We’ve all encountered it at some point or another–rolling eyes, dirty looks, the snide comment or some incredulous statement along the lines of, “Oh, give me a break…you’re one of those Jesus freaks?!” As most Christians who believe that we are doing our best to shine the light of Christ and to impact the world around us for Him, we’re often left scratching our heads, wondering how we got such a bad rap! One needs to look no further than the nearest television to see the mainstream media’s stereotypical portrayal of Christians as narrow-minded idiots–take shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons, for example. The secular media loves to exploit Christians who fall in the public eye, such as disgraced Colorado Pastor Ted Haggard, and to sensationalize sordid stories involving those carry that the Christian name; take the murderous minister’s wife, Mary Winkler, for example. Then we have so-called “Christian” groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members picket the funerals of American soldiers, touting that God Himself has caused the deaths of these brave men and women as judgment for America’s acceptance of homosexuality. Lump all of the above in with the highly-publicized Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal or, more recently, polygamist child-molester Warren Jeffs who throws around the name of Jesus, and it’s no mystery how people end up with a skewed view of God, Jesus, Christianity and Christians.
So, what does the average person really think about us and our faith? This month, I set out on a journey to find the answer. Eager to hear from the people themselves, I tracked down about a dozen folks who do not claim to follow Christ, and asked them a few basic questions about God, Jesus and Christianity. Below are those questions, as well as a cross-section of the responses given to each one.
Question 1: Who is God?
Responses to this question ranged from “creator of everything” and “immortality” to “a made-up supreme being”, “does not exist”, and “a delusion”. My most thorough respondent to each of these questions, a thirty-something woman I will call “Samantha” said, “To me, God has always sort of represented the energy between all living things, from people to animals, to all of nature. Male, female, one or many, I just don’t know. I consider myself agnostic, meaning that I don’t have evidence enough to say whether God exists or doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in anything. It just means I can’t be sure and I like to have concrete facts before subscribing to anything. To me, God could be the Christian or Jewish God, or Allah, or a Hindu god, any of hundreds of tribal gods, even Zeus for all I know.”
Question 2: Do you believe in Jesus?
In response to this, I had several people give me an outright “no”, while the more common responses converged along the line of statements such as, “yes, he was a good teacher” and, “I believe that he existed but not that he was God.” One of the more outspoken responses to this question was, “Belief in Jesus Christ as God is leaning on a crutch and not accepting responsibility for your actions. You are a sheep – like the Bible says – a follower. You are being controlled by a system. True salvation is rejecting that system.”
Question 3: Do you think God can be just and loving?
To this question, I had some answer “yes”, some “no”, but most responded with, essentially, “I don’t see why not”. One person fired off, “Also I read that Bible of yours and did not find many examples of love and justice. Slavery, rape, murder and of course ‘obey and worship me or suffer for eternity’… that’s not justice, that’s insanity.”
Question 4: Do you go to church? Why or why not?
As I intentionally sought out those who do not claim to be Christians, most answered “no” to this question, giving a general response of “what’s the point?” “Samantha” said this, “When I was in high school…just before 9/11 (and definitely after), a lot of Current Events started to take over the church’s culture. My parents (and I) both felt that the pastors were using their influence way too often to talk about their own political beliefs, which were by and large extremely conservative. This isn’t exactly fair, since polls will tell you that not all Christians are Republicans. My parents always taught me a message of Jesus’ love and compassion, so hearing about how wrong and awful immigrants were, among many other political opinions, felt way more like we were going to church to learn about the Republican platform cloaked in Christian words than anything actually biblical.”
Question 5: What do you think of Christians?
Here’s where the gloves came off, and not too many bare-knuckle punches were pulled. Although I got a couple of more positive responses to this question such as, “honest, easy going, friendly, loving, law abiding citizens”, the negatives reigned supreme, with quips such as “gullible”, “misled” “narrow-minded”, “hypocrites”, “ignorant”, and “full of themselves”. “Samantha” had this to say, “This is a tough question, so I have a mixed answer. Some of the most incredibly warm, kind-hearted, compassionate and giving people I have ever known are devout Christians, and act as they do because of their faith…I think I speak for much of the non-Christian population when I say that I become a bit wary of someone when they tell me they’re a practicing Christian, in part because I worry they’ll be watching for the opportunity to minister to me or convert me. I have known incredible Christian examples who live their lives according to their faith, and never once tried to convert me; in fact, they’re the entire reason why I say I’m agnostic and not atheist–I think it’s possible that God exists, and I’ve seen the positive effects on these people. I see so many Christians judging me for being liberal politically, or my friends for being gay, lesbian, transgender, etc. or trying to change who we are…I don’t think it’s God or Christianity that is the problem; I think it’s that people, humans, calling themselves Christians have taken what could be a beautiful faith full of love and respect, and have turned it into a way to bully people into doing what a minority thinks is right for everyone.”
A Thoughtful Response
As I’m sure you can imagine, some of these answers were both heartbreaking and burdensome to me, the interviewer, although not surprising. In John 15:18-19, Jesus Himself said “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” Some of what I heard was obviously coming from out of a hatred for Jesus and His followers, and in examining the above answers, we must consider the source. We are called by God to be set apart, and to not compromise His truth to appease the world. As Paul, the writer of Romans, says in Chapter 12, verse 2, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”
So, what’s a Christian to do when faced with the confused, critical, and sometimes hostile world; a world who Jesus died for and so deeply desires to come to Him? As we consider our responsibility to be Christ to the lost and dying masses, the scriptural truths found in I Peter 3:15 are ones that will serve us well to prayerfully consider: “And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ.”
“And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.”
Perhaps one of the world’s most valid criticisms of Christians today is that we simply don’t know our Bibles well enough to know what God has to say about things. In a 2010 Pew Forum study, Mormons displayed a better knowledge of Christianity and the Bible than Evangelical Christians, and Athesists/Agnostics were not too far behind. In Acts Chapter 17, we read of a group that Paul the Apostle encountered in the city of Berea who, “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” A one-hour sermon, once-a-week is not going to prepare us to effectively share Jesus with others. We need to dig in to the Bible ourselves to truly be prepared with applicable Bible-based answers to the real questions people have today. No credibility comes with a response of, “I know it’s somewhere in the Bible”. However, if we become those believers who know, specifically, where to find the answers in God’s Word, we become sharp tools in His hands to minister to others in a powerful way.
“But do this in a gentle and respectful way.”
We need to remember who we were and where we came from before God so mercifully reached down and rescued us. Sometimes the very same attitudes and criticisms we now find ourselves surprised and pained to face in dealing with non-believers are the ones we ourselves once held tightly to before coming to Christ. Being arrogant, being confrontational or becoming angry when trying to share Christ with someone contradicts not only our message, but the messenger Himself. Even if we are 100 percent correct and “right” in what we are saying, we can simultaneously be completely wrong in how we are saying it. People respond to empathy, humility and compassion, as well as to someone who takes the time to listen to their concern or point-of-view and to respond in a spirit of grace and peace. As Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.”
Practice What You Preach
“Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ.”
The “good news, bad news” about being vocal about our faith in Christ is the accountability that comes along with our public proclamation. We do more harm than good when we start throwing around Jesus’ name or this-or-that Bible verse, but then turn around and regularly say or do things that completely contradict God and His Word. Certainly, we are all imperfect people, but a life of hypocrisy is definitely not one that is attractive to a lost sinner. However, the righteousness, servanthood and joy that overflow from a love relationship with Jesus will be the bright light to the world that our Lord speaks of in Matthew 5:14-15, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.”
A final encouragement–be ready, be real and be right with God, and watch in amazement how He can use you to turn a critic into a Christ-follower right before your very eyes!
If you are a non-believer, how would you respond to the questions that Justin posed? Justin can be reached at [email protected]