There are good and “less good” ways to talk about your faith. Explaining to people that you are writing a book about both the good and the bad leads to hearing stories like this one:
Oh, yeah, I know exactly what you mean. My mom’s friend, a woman from her neighborhood, someone she had know for years, recently asked her: “Do you know Jesus as your personal Savior?” Completely out of the blue. My mom was really upset. If she wanted a sermon, she would have gone to church!
Talking about Jesus was not the problem. It was the lack of context. These two women were friends, but in this conversation, there was no preparation, no dialog, nothing to indicate that this was anything more than some poor woman gearing herself up to “be bold” and to make sure her friend had her spiritual ducks in a row. It felt, to her, like the question and the answer were just boxes to be checked.
I didn’t personally follow up with any of the people involved in this story, but I can imagine the responses of each of these two women afterwards. I can see the woman who was asked this question going home both a little offended and a little sad: a woman she thought she knew and thought was a friend has just turned out to be at best a bit more shallow than she thought, at worst, someone who was just pretending to be friends. Either way, something in their long, warm relationship suddenly cooled. The sadness she felt, if she could put a name to it, might be called mourning.
I can imagine that the other woman probably also went home with mixed feelings. On one hand, she finally said what she had been hoping and praying about saying for years. She truly cared for this neighbor and didn’t want to avoid her duty to “make sure” her friend was right with Jesus. On the other hand, it was obvious from the puzzled look on her friend’s face and the way the conversation abruptly ended that something had gone wrong. “Maybe my timing was wrong. I hope I haven’t offended her.” Like the woman she spoke to, she also felt a little sad, realizing that the trust that had been growing slowly for years now suddenly felt wiped away. She felt a little better later, when she shared her story with some Christian friends and was highly commended for her faithfulness to the Gospel.
It is stories like these, repeated hundreds of times over, that have lead me to agree with what Os Guinness has said: many of our efforts in sharing our faith leave nothing more than “a burnt over field.” For every 1 in a thousand or maybe 100,000 people who respond positively to this kind of abrupt, unexpected, unintelligible question, we leave many, many more damaged relationships and people who are now further than ever from seriously examining the condition of their own faith and the possibilities that Christ offers.
And the most tragic part about it, for me, is that there is no reason why it has to be this way. It would have taken just as much courage to have this conversation instead.
Mary: You know we have been friends a long time.
Susan: Yes. Ever since your son fell off his bicycle in front of my house! God, how long ago was that? 25 years? He’s still in practice up in Maryland, right? How many hours have we spent leaning over this fence talking? I hope I have at least taught you a few things! Ha ha!
Mary: That’s right. 25 years. And we have talked about a lot of things. But , and this is a little awkward for me, one thing we’ve never talked about is God. You know, when your father was sick, I spent a lot of time praying for you….
Susan: And you brought my daughters dinner all those nights while was up taking care of him.
Mary: I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have done. But the thing I’ve never asked about is how your faith was doing. Losing a parent can be hard. I know you don’t go to church much, but didn’t I hear you say you used to? Do you mind if I ask why you stopped? I know for a lot of people, it’s a “long story.”
Susan: Of course I don’t mind! You are my friend. Who else do I have to talk to about these things?