How to Talk About Jesus (Without Being a Jerk)

This article is a follow-up to “Why Christians Are Arrogant (When Discussing Religion)“. That article showed why it is that Christians are perceived as arrogant. The problem is the way they witness! This article is an attempt at real solutions.

American Christians are taught to spread the gospel like jerks. Check out this guy’s method for evangelism: it’s very common in Evangelical circles. The socially blind desperation obvious in this evangelistic method is a symptom of the pressure among Evangelicals to spread the gospel. There is pressure to convert people to Christianity because:
a) Jesus (sort of) said to.
b) Religion which focuses mostly on right belief (as Evangelicalism learned to do from Fundamentalism) doesn’t have much to do with its spare time other than make sure everyone believes the right thing. Rinse, cycle, repeat.
c) Oh, then there’s the whole Christian authority in Western society issue I talked about last week. There are other complicating factors, but they’re complicated and probably just distractions..

As I explained in my last post, starting a conversation with someone to try and convert them is both rude and stupid. It is rude because society decides what is rude, and it decided that trying to change someone’s mind about something they have not given you authority to try to change is rude. It is stupid because trying to change someone’s mind rudely is not likely to get you very far. Further, rudeness is perceived, to put it in Christian terms, as a mild sin. In being rude for this purpose, Americans hear “I think that I can be a little bit evil for God’s benefit.” Unfortunately, this is the default model!

At this point, someone who supports these modes of evangelism is likely to bring up someone they know, or heard about, who became a Christian through something like this. One of the following is true of that story: a) it happened to someone born before 1980, b) the conversation went more like what I’ll suggest below, or c) it didn’t actually go down the way the speaker thinks it did.

If you want to tell people about Jesus (and you should, He’s pretty swell), then try the following method (also known as a conversation):

1) Wait for religion to come up in conversation. It will, particularly if you aren’t a jackass. People want to hear what you have to say. You can’t bring it up, because you’re a Christian, and people are sick and tired of Christians arrogantly telling them what to think. If you bring up Christianity out of the blue, no one will hear anything you say.

2) When it comes up at first, treat it like any other topic, not like you’re trying to convince that cheerleader to go out with you. Treat it the same way society demands you discuss religion: as a personal option. It’s what Paul did, so hear me out. For example, it’s likely that the topic might come up because a co-worker finds out you go to church. Maybe they say “oh, you go to church?” or, “Oh, so you’re a Christian?” You could respond “Yeah, it’s really working for me,” or “yeah, I get a lot of meaning out of it.” This communicates that it’s important to you, and it might be something of value. However, it’s not pushy, and it’s not threatening.

3) Don’t bring it up again. Eventually, if and when they get curious, they will ask you something about your faith. At this point, they knew what they were getting into, so it’s OK to be a little wordier, but be careful not to railroad them. Answer their question, try and engage them. You know, like you do in every other normal conversation. Be very, very sensitive to them. When their curiosity ends, so does the conversation. You don’t want to be re-labeled the arrogant Christian! Kiss of death, folks.

4) Over time, as this repeats a couple of times, it will become clear your co-worker is interested enough in your faith that you can share with them quite openly. It is at this point that the knowledge you gain in evangelism classes might become useful.

Many of your co-workers will never become very interested. That’s fine: it’s not your problem. It’s not your problem to generate interest in God, it is God’s job (John 6:44). It is God’s job to change hearts, and it is your job to be an available tool, on the off-chance God needs one. Most of the time, the most you can hope for is to not give God another mess to clean up, to not throw more stones on slowly softening soil. Occasionally, when you are invited to discuss your faith, be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, and don’t forget the world you actually live in.

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  1. Nice post, Steve. Patience! What a concept!? I remember as a young Christian I was made to feel guilty if I didn’t share my faith with someone in the immediate context. The evangelist/preacher/whatever remarked that perhaps one would be guilty of that person’s damnation because one didn’t share the gospel with that poor lost soul when one had the chance. I think the context (which, I might add, is totally out of biblical context)was from Ezekiel’s passage about the watchman.

    • Stephen Hale
    • February 4th, 2011

    I think many (all) of us have stories like that, Mike. There is tremendous guilt associated with this, either in the way you described, or through the idea that evangelism is a command from Jesus (which is eisegesis). I’ve also heard preachers/evangelists/speakers use the verse about being prepared to give account (1 Pet 3:15) of your faith, which of course assumes that being prepared is the same as forcing others to listen to your prepared account. Again, this isn’t in the text.
    Basically, we’ve sanctified models of evangelism that may have worked in the past. We do this a lot, actually. We need to recognize the difference, though, so we can see what is Scriptural and what is a question of practicality.

    -Stephen

    • Yeah, I think a lot of the methodology comes from modern salesmanship. In short, the prepared account is a short, rehearsed commercial on why you should be a Christian or come to our church with a deli/coffee bar and playground for your kids. Who could pass up such a bargain! I was actually attending a church that used to have a day where they would award the church member with the most guests with a dinner for two at like Spires or Dennys. So you get to witness and enjoy a hot meal for free!

  2. This is another interesting and well written post.

    I’m not entirely sure I agree with you entirely, but let me express my hesitations and we shall find out. After all, I respect your opinion and find you a valuable thinker.

    What Jesus does say in Matthew is that the disciples are to go forth into every nation, making disciples, and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This doesn’t often translate to the sort of evangelism that we often do (door-to-door conversion, especially lacking follow-up), but I am not sure that it excludes that.

    The part I specifically think I disagree with in your post is when you say the response to “Oh, so you’re a Christian?” should be “Yeah, it works for me.” or something similar. While I understand the reasoning (after all, this is what our society says is the polite way to discuss religion), it strikes me as a weakening of the our position. While I actually tend to agree with living within societal norms and expectations (I in fact argued for this with a friend multiple times in the last few days), I would say that some societal norms should not be followed by a Christian.

    So what I actually propose is this. If the Bible tells us that we should clearly state that Christ is Lord as a universal truth, we should do that. If the Bible lacks information concerning this topic, let’s follow societal norms.

    I’m not even saying one or the other is the case. I think an argument could be made for either (and it seems clear that I’m biased towards the former), but I think that proposal is something we can agree on. I hope.

    Thoughts?

    • Stephen Hale
    • February 4th, 2011

    James:

    I wanted to address those things in my post, but then it would be huge. Let me try and respond here.

    Great Commission: You’re right on both counts–What Jesus said hardly demands the methods (many) evangelicals want to use, but neither does it prevent them. In fact, Jesus doesn’t give any sort of method at all: it’s left open-ended, because in different contexts, different things would be appropriate. That is to say, the HOW is a matter of practicality, and God trusts & demands we be responsible with that (something else I’d like to blog about at some point).

    “Yeah it works for me.” I predicted this (your) response. I don’t think it’s a dilution, but a contextualization. Further, there’s no reason you have to say a complete summary of your beliefs any time someone asks you anything. Of course one can only say a certain amount of what they believe, and one selects the most relevant information to present. This is how all communication works. In this particular case, I’m suggesting we find the piece of information that is most relevant In Context to say. It’s more important to say something your reader will hear than assuages your own conscience. If you can only say a sentence or two (and that is certainly true at this stage), then communicating to the type of truth the other person will accept and recognize is the only smart move.

    Saying “Yes, Jesus is Lord over all, and I go to church to celebrate that” or some such thing which reflects the level of summary you prefer to think in is going to fall on deaf ears. You’re wasting your time. So as a matter of pragmatism one must communicate what the listener can hear.

    And though I’m probably repeating myself, let me also respond to “If the Bible tells us that we should clearly state that Christ is Lord as a universal truth, we should do that.”
    For the sake of clarity: The Bible does not demand every time you mention Jesus you give the most complete statement you can fit into the alloted space (a sentence, in this case). There’s no injunction like this in the Bible.
    I think this last paragraph might seem a bit hostile, by beating the dead horse, but I put it in for the sake of clarity. 🙂

    At least, those are my .02!

    -Stephen

    • Thanks for the timely response. Here are my thoughts at the moment.

      The person who responds with “Yes, Jesus is Lord over all, and I go to church to celebrate that.” strikes me as the sort of person who I would not even want to interact with. And I agree with them. My point was not to say that we should sacrifice being personable for expressing a conviction. I agree with your pragmatism, but perhaps I just think the difference is in the extent to which that should be taken.

      For example, when someone says to me “Oh, you go to Church?” or (more commonly) “Oh, so you’re a religions type?,” my response is likely to contain phrases like “Well, yes, I believe that what Jesus did was important and even life changing.” I think my distinction here is that I would choose, even in a brief sentence, to say that Jesus had an effect on me because Jesus is effective, not because I was effected (hopefully that distinction makes sense). I’ve found this subtle shift is enough to keep me from being offensive while still proclaiming a more accurate and important truth.

      As to your last paragraph, you’re right. I never said that the Bible tells us to provide a complete statement of faith at every chance. I was merely saying that if the Bible tells us to claim Jesus’ objectivity, it seems to me that claiming primarily his subjectivity would be a bad thing.

      Christ Abide,
      -James

    • Stephen Hale
    • February 4th, 2011

    oop! Iiiii….I can certainly see the wisdom in your view. I’m not sure if I prefer it to my example, but I’m not sure I don’t either. It’s a good idea, and certainly (at a minimum) worth some thought!

    And as for your last paragraph, sorry, I think I misunderstood you. 🙂

    -Stephen

  3. No worries on misunderstanding. This is written communication, after all. And people struggle with proper communication when in person using as many cues as they can. Yikes.

    You’ll have to keep us readers informed with your thoughts, if you come to a different conclusion or decide what you perceived as wisdom on my part turned out to be foolish. 🙂

    Christ Abide,
    -James

  1. February 2nd, 2012

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