Babbling for Jesus
I spent a very interesting hour recently in a lively, full-on discussion about religion in general and Christianity in particular with people who do not share my faith. Here are some reflections, writes Colin Sedgwick
My wife and I belong to the University of the Third Age, which is emphatically not a university at all, but a voluntary organisation for anyone who is retired. It runs various types of groups – languages, poetry, computer skills, walking, music, comedy, litter-picking, current affairs, virtually anything anyone wants to start up. (If you happen to be (a) an expert on the Outer Mongolian nose-flute and (b) retired, the U3A is just waiting to enfold you to its bosom.)
And if ever anyone trots out that tired cliché that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” just kick them, please, in the direction of the U3A.
One of the groups calls itself, perhaps a little grandly, the “philosophy” group, and it was these good people who hosted this discussion on religion. I had never attended it before (me, philosophy? Nah!) but I was warmly and kindly welcomed by a bunch of about ten delightful people. I was the only participant who explicitly declared themselves a Christian.
Virtual discussions are, of course, bound to be less than entirely satisfactory, and I came away not sure how good an “ambassador for Christ” I had been – I am sure I omitted to say various things that would have been useful, and fear that I may also have said things that were unclear or open to misunderstanding. I felt a little like “babbler” Paul in Athens: “a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with Paul. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’…” Acts 17:18.
But I had the opportunity, at very least, to share my story – to say how I had become a Christian in my teens, and a little bit of why I am still a Christian in my seventies.
On reflection, one or two thoughts seem worth sharing.
First, I was struck that several of the group had rebelled against a very “religious” upbringing. Adolescence seems to have been the turning point, the opportunity to shake off the shackles of superstition, meaningless ritual and mumbo-jumbo.
I was glad to point out that my story was just the opposite – having been sent to Sunday School by non-churchgoing parents, my brother and I both became Christians in our mid-teens; not exactly rebelling, but certainly creating a bit of a stir.
It made me aware of the terrible damage we can do if ever we come across self-righteous, sanctimonious, downright sinful, or just plain incomprehensible. It reminded me of a cynical remark I heard once from a good Christian, as he ruefully shook his head: “Every time I look at our churches I marvel that anyone ever gets converted”.
The question, “What sort of advertisement are we for Christ?” is one we must always have in mind.
But having got used to this attitude in our meeting - jolly dismissal of religion as beneath contempt - I couldn’t help but feel that there were also vibes of a positive kind.
In some there was a hint of affectionate nostalgia; people spoke of their childhood faith and church involvement with real warmth: “I still remember some of the songs we sang”; “I have never forgotten those Bible stories”. Churches can be happy places, it seems!
There was even respect. “Of course, even though I don’t believe a word of it, I’m the first to recognise that some churches do a lot of good in the community”. (Food-banks? Street pastors? Night-shelters? Debt-counselling?) One woman said to me personally, “It’s so refreshing to have someone with us who has a real, solid faith” (and I’m thinking, who? me?).
There was even an expression of envy: “I really do envy you your faith”, from one of the most outspoken of the unbelievers – as if faith in Christ was just a matter of luck, like having a pleasant voice or being good at sums.
I came away in no doubt that some militant unbelievers are, in fact, nothing like as militant, or as sure of themselves, as they make out…
The most important – and, indeed, the saddest – reflection was that most of the objections to Christianity were to do with the weaknesses, foibles and peculiarities of churches, not at all to do with Jesus. These friendly people seemed unable to see that what matters about any kind of religion is not “Does it do good?” or “Does it make you feel better?” or “Does it give a shape to your life?” (though the answer to those questions is, of course, “Yes”, if you’re a Christian) but… “Is It true?”
Did Jesus come into this world as God-in-the-flesh? Was he crucified as a sacrifice for our sins? Did he rise from the dead on the third day?
It is to basic questions like that that we must draw people; unless we do so, all our “witness” and “outreach” is ultimately just preparing the way.
Loving Father, please help us to be faithful witnesses, true ambassadors, for Jesus and his resurrection, so that people will say to us what they said to your servant Paul: “We want to hear you again on this subject”. Amen.
Image | Freely photos
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com
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