Virtual Voices

Target-shooting Christianity

Religion

Another theme that emerges in UnChristian is the perception among young people outside the church that the Christians with whom they come into contact see them as possible converts rather than people. Their experience is captured in a story from a young man interviewed for the book, who tells of a nice stranger who seemed interested in getting to know him. They chatted, exchanged numbers, and later his new friend called and invited him to a Bible study. He declined the invitation, and never heard from the guy again. He left the experience feeling like he had only been this person's latest conversion target.

The problem with a story, of course, is that we can envision many justifications for why the guy never called back. One of the authors of UnChristian, in fact, tells a similar story, of meeting someone who seemed interested in learning more about Christianity, and then losing his email address. Perhaps the person he met felt as the young man interviewed for the book had felt, like a sales target. A single story, or handful of stories, can always be explained away. That's why multiple data points can be useful, to give a picture of how many hundreds of people feel. When these hundreds are selected following survey protocols, their opinions in turn can be reliable indicators of how thousands more feel.

The survey evidence in this case is troubling. While nearly two-thirds of Christians surveyed felt that outsiders perceived their efforts at evangelizing as genuine, only one-third of young people outside the church reported believing that the Christians who reached out to them genuinely cared for them. These are not fleeting interactions, according to the survey -- 82 percent of these young people have attended churches, 65 percent reported having conversations in the last year with a Christian friend about faith, and 53 percent report being approached in the past year about becoming a Christian.

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An additional problem, the authors of UnChristian write, is that only three percent of self-professing Christians between the ages of 18 and 41 embrace a biblical worldview, reflected in affirmation of essential Christian tenets such as the sinlessness of Christ, the unearned nature of salvation, the evangelical imperative, and the truth of the Bible. They find, further, that only nine percent of older Christians completely embrace a biblical worldview.

Compounding the problem that many outsiders feel like targets rather than valued people, in other words, is the reality that most self-professing Christians can't articulate the primary tenets of their own faith, leaving them ill-prepared to evangelize.

I suspect that the latter problem informs the former; if we do not understand Ephesians 2:8, and have not confronted the depths of our own depravity, which in turn illuminates the inner workings of grace, then we are likely ill-suited to treat non-believers with the mercy that has been poured out on us. We will be unable to see that they are trapped as we were trapped. We will see them as sinners only, not brothers and sisters. If we are pounding the pavement without a genuine understanding of our own salvation, then something other than the love of Christ may be compelling us. Our desire to trumpet our own righteousness, perhaps.

The remedy offered by the authors is simple and difficult. First there is thinking: "We are learning that one of the primary reasons that ministry to teenagers fails to produce a lasting faith is because they are not being taught to think," write the authors. There is also loving: "We do not look like Jesus to outsiders because we do not love outsiders as Jesus does." And there is listening: Listen "...to what God is telling us, within the context of Scripture, prayer, crises, and relationships."

Of course it would be three things I struggle with, thinking, loving, and listening. But notice how the three admonitions get at a problem we've all seen in various churches. In some cases, we focus so heavily on doctrine that we forget to love. In others, we get so caught up in loving and affirming everyone in our path that we forget the unchanging law of God. And too often, we are so intent on getting others to hear us that we forget the essential element of communication, which is that people tend to hear better when they feel that they are being heard. UnChristian suggests that too many Christians are neither speaking truth in love, nor taking the time to listen. I wonder if we'll listen to these authors and others, or stop our ears and tell ourselves we've nothing to improve?

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