Islam's Image Problem
The post-9/11 idea of Islam in America is lot of things, none of them very positive... I have been asked with a straight face why I would want to talk to a Muslim. This question was asked by a Christian. I don't know what kind of Christian has so little love for people that they can't see the value in nearly 25% of the entire world population (an immature one?). I talked to a minister who was on deputation to raise money to go to the Middle East as a missionary to a predominately Muslim country and he couldn't get a single church in his district to even schedule him for a presentation. This was after he was commissioned by the international headquarters of the organization and given their stamp of approval. He told me that several churches in his district held to the belief that there was no hope of salvation for Muslims. In their mind, they are the enemies of God, of America, of Christianity, and of everyone in the Western world.
Why is this idea of Islam prevalent among many Christians in some areas of the U.S. and other Western countries, especially given this is such a clearly anti-Christian attitude? What do these people really think about Muslims?
Is this really what Islam and Muslims are all about?
The short answer is no.
The more technically correct answer is sometimes...
This is an undeniably complicated issue and I won't pretend that we can even begin to scratch the surface in this short blog post. We will, however, have a better understanding of the issue than we did when we began.
How Should We React to Islam?
In light of the current strained relationship between Christianity and Islam (some of which is based on fact, but most of which is based on misinformation), it is of utmost importance that Christians maintain a Christlike attitude both in our dealings with the Muslim community and in the way we talk about Islam, whether publicly or privately. Unfortunately, the reactions I have seen most often from the Christian community, especially the religious right, is not healthy, well-informed, or aligned with the mission of the cross. The tendency is to:
I have three serious issues with these reactions:
As Christians, our number one concern should be that our actions and reactions are aligned with the Great Commission and grounded firmly in the Greatest Commandment.
The People of the Book
There are three distinct groups of people who Muhammed considered to be "The People of the Book". Let's take a look at his beliefs regarding those religious groups and how they relate to one another. (These general beliefs began to change after the death of Muhammed and vary wildly to this day, although the majority of the world's 2 billion Muslims are not hostile to Christianity or Judaism.)
Common Ground with Muslims
There are many commonalities shared between Christians and Muslims, both in social values and religious beliefs. This is where we can truly connect with those of the Muslim faith. Here are just a few of those values/beliefs.
Commonly Misunderstood Terms
There is a lot of misinformation surrounding Islam in the US. Ever since 9/11, anything related to Islam is emotionally charged and therefore prone to exploitation and a lot of hype by the media and politically minded individuals who don't care about the accuracy of information... Let's do our part to correct that by looking at a couple of these often misunderstood terms objectively.
(Un)Common Ground - Week 1: (Un)Comfortable Christianity
(Un)Common Ground - Week 2: The Wolves and the Sheep
(Un)Common Ground - Week 3: Connecting with the Unchurched and Non-Religious
(Un)Common Ground - Week 4: Connecting with Atheists, Agnostics, and Anti-Theists
What does that even mean?
It's important that we start with an understanding of the terminology. What exactly does "atheist", "agnostic", and "anti-theist" mean? What makes each unique and where is the overlap?
While there are some major differences in these three sets of beliefs, there is often significant overlap of two or more of these ideals. Most atheists I've talked to, for example, will admit that they cannot be 100% sure that God doesn't exist, which makes them somewhat agnostic. They choose to believe there is no God, however, which is what makes them atheists. They may also believe that belief in God is dangerous and detrimental to society. This would classify them as anti-theists, at least to a degree.
In my experience, I would say most people who identify as atheists, agnostics, or anti-theists actually believe in all three ideals to varying degrees.
Give credit where it is due.
Don't be afraid to admit when someone you disagree with is right. It seems that, as Christians, we see atheists as the enemy and we want to win some type of competition against them. There is no competition. There is no winning an argument.
Let me follow that up by saying this: We can't change our message to make them more happy, but we can find a method that is more effective. Let's start with where we agree.
Agreeing with an atheist on one point is not paramount to conceding all other points. Unfortunately, that is how we often approach discussions with certain groups of people. Conservative Christian movements often take this approach with atheists, Muslims, pro-choice advocates, and the LGBT+ community. I would argue that openly admitting agreement with someone of a different religious or political persuasion on one issue will break down walls for more productive discussions on other issues.
Here are some examples of things on which we can agree with atheists, agnostics, and anti-theists.
Admitting agreement on issues like these will bring down walls and show others that we are not simply trying to be confrontational or argumentative.
What not to say to an atheist...
Author, blogger, and atheist apologist, Hemant Mehta appeared in a YouTube video entitled "15 things to NEVER say to an atheist" from The Atheist Voice, in which he gives advice to Christians on what not to say to an atheist. Here are a few of the highlights:
As a Christian, you may be saying, "Those all seem like perfectly logical/effective arguments!" The good news is, you are right. The bad news is, you are wrong.
Those are all sound arguments from a Christian perspective, but from the perspective of an atheist, they are completely illogical. Let's take a look at each point and the atheist counterpoints provided by Mr. Mehta (I am paraphrasing, but the point is the same).
Christian: "Where do you get your morality?"
Atheist: "I have values and a conscience. My values aren't based on the Bible, though. I hope the Bible isn't the only reason you're not going around murdering people."
Christian: "Your life must be so empty."
Atheist: "My life is full. I believe in many things, just not God."
Christian: "Why are you mad at God?"
Atheist: "I'm not mad at God. I don't believe in God. I can't be mad at someone/something I don't believe in."
Christian: "What if you're wrong?"
Atheist: "What if I am wrong? If there really is a God, I would hope that he is not a vengeful God who would punish me for not believing in him. If he really existed and demanded that I believe in him, wouldn't he provide some evidence?"
Christian: "You just have to have faith."
Atheist: "Uh... no... I need to have evidence. I don't think you understand how this whole atheist thing works...."
So what can I say?
The previous list of things not to say to an atheist is not a list of hard and fast rules. I included this list to give us a better understanding of the difference in values and logic of the Christian and the atheist. We all need to have the self-awareness to know when to speak and when to shut up, as well as what to say. Talking to a good friend will be a different conversation than talking to a complete stranger.
The key is to not be intentionally offensive or argumentative. Our goal is to love people. Period. Once we get that part down, we can start to think about our secondary goal, which is to share the Gospel with those people. The reason I describe sharing the Gospel as a "secondary" goal (for which I know I will catch some flak) is that we simply cannot do the Great Commission without first fulfilling the Greatest Commandment.
If our intentions are pure, then I believe we will take the time to try to understand the perspective of others. If we truly love other people, we will put effort into empathizing with them. Empathy goes a long way when connecting with anyone who differs in opinion, politically, theologically, or otherwise.
Questions to ask before engaging with an atheist, agnostic, etc.
Follow the links to catch up on this series:
(Un)Common Ground - Week 1: (Un)Comfortable Christianity
(Un)Common Ground - Week 2: The Wolves and the Sheep
(Un)Common Ground - Week 3: Connecting with the Unchurched and Non-Religious
Accidental Evangelism on the Chicken Farm
*Note: I asked Bobby for permission to use his name in this story. To the best of my recollection it is accurate. If there are any discrepancies, I will post a correction.
I first met Bobby in the break room of an industrial chicken farm. If you’ve never been in an industrial chicken farm, there’s no way I can describe it that will do it justice, but here’s my best shot: Imagine a strong stench of ammonia punching you in the face. Now multiply that by 3 million (the number of chickens housed on said farm). If I’m exaggerating, it’s ever so slightly. The parking lot would take your breath away. I can’t imagine what the actual chicken houses were like. The break room was isolated from the houses, which tempered the stench somewhat. It was still there, but it wasn’t quite so violent.
Anyway, Bobby worked as a foreman (or some such thing) in the department that produced liquid egg. There were tanker trucks of this stuff leaving every day. This isn’t the stuff that restaurants buy in cartons for making omelettes, this is the stuff that is used to coat candy bars. This is what gives your Snickers or 3 Musketeer that inviting sheen that says, “Eat me!”
I worked for an outside contractor as a vending attendant. My job was to fill the vending machines in three break rooms, on two different farms, every day. I also inventoried product and counted the money for the route drivers to pick up.
There were a few guys that I went out of my way to make small talk with on a daily basis. At first, Bobby wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him, but I mistook his California swagger for arrogance or aloofness or something. Maybe it was the accent, but I just assumed he was a jerk.
One day, as I was sitting in the corner counting a dozen stacks of one dollar bills, Bobby walked up and struck up a conversation. I don’t remember what this conversation was about, but it became a regular thing. “How’s the kid?” “Any plans for the weekend?” That type of thing.
One Monday morning, Bobby asked if I had been at the Fall Festival at the “Christian Academy” on Friday evening. I told him that he had and that I thought I saw him there, but he was across the room and wore black rimmed glasses instead of his usual safety glasses, so I wasn’t sure if it was him. He proceeded to tell me that his daughter attended Seymour Christian Academy, the school that was operated by my church. This was also where my wife worked and my son went to preschool. I was surprised to learn that he had a connection with my church, but that’s about as far as the conversation went.
The following week, my church was in revival and I was planning to invite a few people who I thought would be interested. As a matter of fact I was praying that God would give me an opportunity to connect with someone. I had a few people in mind.
Bobby wasn’t on that list.
I had no reason to believe that he would be interested. We had never breached the topic of faith. To be honest, he seemed to be the least likely to care about our revival. Call it a vibe that I got. Boy, was I wrong… What happened next shocked me.
Bobby walked up and seemingly out of the blue said something along the lines of, “Would you mind if I came to church with you sometime?”
Would I mind? I rolled the words around in my head, which suddenly felt empty and grossly under-equipped to decipher what he had said. What I wanted to say was… Actually, I’m not sure what it was I wanted to say. I think I wanted to explain why I hadn’t invited him already and apologize for being an idiot, but what came out was something like, “Sure, that would be great! How is this week? We’re having revival.”
He looked at me in much the same way that a deer looks at headlights. It didn’t register with me at the time that he had no clue what I meant by “revival”. He shrugged and said, “Sure!”
Bobby’s first service was fairly typical of a Pentecostal revival service. Bro. Mike Easter, a fiery evangelist was preaching with his usual enthusiasm and flair for the dramatic. The worship service was high octane. None of this was unusual to me, but I was fairly certain this was Bobby’s first experience in a Pentecostal church. I was a little worried about how he would respond. Would it freak him out? Would he be back? Would he talk to me again?
My fears intensified when he basically just sat back and watched the service without any perceivable expression or reaction. When it was over he still didn’t have much to say. He unceremoniously got up and walked out. No feedback. No compliments. No complaints. No comments. Nothing.
My fears were short lived. He came back the next night. And the next night. And Sunday. He just kept coming back. Still sitting back and watching. Still basically expressionless. But he was there. He would have made an excellent poker player.
We invited Bobby and his daughter to our home friendship group and we soon became good friends. There were cookouts, game nights, and group discussions, but still no real reaction.
One night, during the altar call, Bobby lifted his hands and began to pray. When he did, he his legs buckled and I caught him and broke his fall before the floor did. He just couldn’t believe how intensely he felt the presence of God and how amazing it all was.
This scene continued every time he would lift his hands in worship. His legs would just give out. There was no drama to it. No flailing. No yelling. He would just pass out (or almost pass out) and someone would help him to a pew.
It was strangely beautiful to see someone so heavily impacted by the Spirit, without any presumption of what was supposed to happen. God was undeniably moving. Bobby wasn’t prepared to feel something that was actually palpable and powerful. My faith was strengthened by watching what God was doing in Bobby’s life.
Eventually Bobby was baptized and filled with the Holy Ghost. But first, he had some questions that he needed answered. I have had some tough questions (and some weird questions) over the years, but none caught me off guard like the list of questions Bobby had. Questions like:
The list went on and on.
Then it dawned on me that Bobby had no clue what I was saying when I spoke in “Christianese”. None of the words that we use to communicate our faith had any meaning to him. He couldn’t even process what I was saying in a simple discussion of baptism because I was so used to explaining it through a framework that he couldn’t comprehend. The language I used when I talked about God wasn’t even in his vocabulary.
Now, Bobby wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t even uneducated, traditionally speaking. In fact, he was really sharp. He had been to college. He had been a police officer in the City of Riverside, California. He spent several years as a store manager for a grocery store chain. Now he was a foreman at an industrial farm. No, intelligence wasn’t the issue; he just didn’t seem to have a point of reference.
Looking for answers, I asked him about his past experience with religion. To my utter shock, he informed me that he had never been in a church building in his life.
He was 37 years old.
Most people I know had been to church before they were 37 days old! I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone had never been inside of a church for any reason. So, I began to interrogate him. Surely he had been in a church at some point.
I proceeded with my list of questions.
Me: “You didn’t go to church on Easter or Christmas as a kid?”
Bobby: “No, my mom was raised Catholic, but hated religion and refused to go.”
Me: “Ok, I’m sure you’ve been to a wedding in a church.”
Bobby: “No, everyone I know either got married by the JP or on the beach. I’ve never been to a church wedding.”
Me: “What about funerals?”
Bobby: “Ok, maybe for a funeral. Never for a service, though...”
It was true. This 37 year old man had never been inside a church, at least not during a service. Ever. That was almost more than my brain could handle. My head didn’t explode, but I’m pretty sure I heard something short out.
*Pffft…. smoke rolls out the ears.*
We decided to do the only thing I knew to do. We had to bring him up to speed. This wasn’t going to be easy and it wasn’t going to be quick, but we had to start with the foundation.
We started with the concept of “God”. Using a tool called “Bible Study in a Bag”, we talked about who God is (as best as we can understand an infinite God with our infinitely finite minds) and why that matters. We talked about Jesus and his basic doctrines. We discussed baptism and the Holy Ghost. Then, after about four sessions of the highlights, we started in the very beginning and began to work our way from Genesis to Revelation.
Over the next year, we would meet every Tuesday and discuss a section of the scripture. Of course, it’s impossible to really cover everything in a year, but we managed the highlights. We covered the major recurring themes, important principles, and popular stories and characters.
Bobby was like a sponge. I have never seen someone so hungry to learn the scripture. He needed to know God. It was a refreshing change of pace from trying to convince comfortable Christians that just maybe this whole thing wasn’t about their comfort.
We connected. Really connected. Bobby became a good friend. Not too long after our year-long Bible study, Bobby began dating a lady in our church who had lost her husband a few years earlier. They were both single parents. They had mutual friends. They clicked almost immediately. It almost seemed like God had orchestrated their budding romance.
When the time came for the wedding came, our entire family was involved. I was his groomsman. My wife and I sang a song during the ceremony. Our son was the ring bearer.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I have a love/hate relationship with weddings. I love the romance of the whole thing (I’m a hopeless romantic). I wouldn’t say I love to cry (it’s inevitable), but I also wouldn’t say that I hate it. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s going to happen and I just embrace it. What I hate is getting dressed up and sitting still for an hour. (My wife would say it’s more about my not being able to talk for an hour, but I digress…)
This was one wedding (tux or not) that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
We are not as close now as I would like, victims of busy and conflicting schedules, but through this process, Bobby and I both gained a lifelong friendship. When I see him worshipping God or quietly praying, I still feel a connection that cannot exist with anyone with whom you have not been a close companion on a long spiritual journey.
What I Learned from My "Accidental Evangelism"
There are a few major lessons that learned from Bobby. Hopefully these are lessons you can avoid having to learn first hand.
If we can be more sensitive to the Spirit and more open to others, we can avoid many of my mistakes that resulted in "accidental evangelism". We can and should be intentional. When we allow God to use us and follow his lead, it is amazing what he will do with our efforts.
The FORD Method
Connecting with people who are unchurched or non-religious presents some unique challenges. When connecting with people of differing religious backgrounds, there is nearly always some common ground in those various religions, which we will get into in later chapters. When talking to someone of a non-religious background, however, the common ground maybe much less obvious. The FORD method is invaluable in these situations. You can (and should) also use the FORD method as a jumping off point for talking to anyone of any
No doubt here are many ways to connect with someone who is non-religious, but in my opinion, the FORD method is by far the most defined and effective, especially as a launching point. This method is surprisingly simple, easy to remember, and effective. FORD is an acronym for four topics that you can use to maximize your effectiveness in developing a real connection with anyone:
Depending on the setting, you will want to start with one of first three. Number four is a little more difficult to get people to open up about, but it can provide the deepest level of connection.
When engaging someone in conversation about family, it is always good to open up somewhat about your own family before asking about theirs. Family is a fairly common topic of conversation in any setting, so it should be easy to make small talk with most people on this subject.
For better or worse, we are often defined by what we do. Therefore, occupation can be a non-threatening subject for a low key conversation starter or carrier. Even if we work in different fields, with little in common, most people like to talk about what they do. We also enjoy comparing and contrasting work experiences. This is equally true of people who love or hate their jobs.
Recreation is pretty self-explanatory. Who doesn’t like to talk about their hobbies. Whether it’s playing golf, mountain biking, woodworking, quilting, collecting vinyl records, or playing the banjo, we all have something that we love to do in our spare time. Keep in mind that the other person may not enjoy hearing about your hobby as much as you love talking about it, but I know they love talking about theirs. So, be sure to give equal or more time to their hobby in your discussions on recreation.
Dreams are the most difficult subject on the list when it comes to getting people to really open up. It may be easy to get someone to say, “I always wanted to be a nurse” which is responsible, socially acceptable, and pretty innocuous, but it’s more difficult to get them to admit that their real dream was to be a firebreather in a traveling circus or a cinematographer or a songwriter (that’s my big secret by the way). These real dreams are often hidden because they represent impracticality and failure, two things with which we don’t typically like to be associated.
If you can get someone to open up about these deeper dreams, however, you will have connected with them on a deeper level than most of their friends and family. Once you have reached this level of connection, the discussion of a typically off-limits subject like religion will seem completely natural.
Keep in mind, this method is equally effective with people of all different backgrounds. The FORD Method is a great tool for starting or continuing a conversation with anyone in any setting.
We are the sheep, right?
The idea of wolves and sheep as the dichotomy of good and evil is deeply ingrained in Western thought. The metaphor of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” has origins as old as time and is referenced in the Bible and countless times in classical and modern literature, music, and Saturday morning cartoons.
First of all, this idea of wolves vs. sheep just makes logical sense. We all know that sheep are vulnerable and weak. They have little defense against predators. They tend to wander off when unattended. That’s why sheep need a shepherd. The shepherd feeds them, keeps them from wandering off the edge of a cliff, and protects them from predators.
Sheep are much easier to take down than cattle and make a much bigger meal than a chicken. They are the perfect size and weight to make them an ideal target for a pack of wolves or coyotes or a big cat. Even a lone wolf can easily take a sheep.
The second reason for the popularity of the wolves vs. sheep narrative in the church is a warning given during the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:15, Jesus tells us to, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
I think we’ve all seen a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” situation unfold. It always looks different, but the end results are the same. I can think of stories ranging from fraud to sexual misconduct to murder.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the name, Jim Jones. He founded The People’s Temple in Indianapolis, where my step-grandfather actually attended services for a time, before Jones moved the congregation to California. Eventually he uprooted the church again and founded “Jonestown” in Guyana, South America. This was to be their paradise. Heaven on earth.
It turned out to be hell for everyone but Jones. Eventually, he would order the murder of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and four others at a nearby airstrip. Congressman Ryan had been investigating concerns of abuse and coercion by the cult. This event was followed by a mass-scale murder/suicide at the Jonestown compound. A total of 918 people (304 of which were children) lost their lives, thanks to the misguided passion of a charismatic revival preacher turned nefarious doomsday cult leader.
The wolf in sheep’s clothing ordeal isn’t always so cut and dried, however. It’s easy to look at someone else, especially after their spectacular fall from grace, and say, “I saw that one coming! He always looked like a wolf in sheep’s clothing to me…”
We always assume we are the sheep, which is why it’s a little more difficult to spot the wolf when he flashes his bloody fangs in the mirror…
It’s just like Splatoon...
There is a false dilemma fallacy at work here. Wolves vs. sheep. Us vs. them. The “good guys” vs. the “bad guys”. Which brings me to my next point. You are always the “good guy” in Splatoon.
For those who don’t have an inkling of what I’m talking about (See what I did there?), Splatoon is a third person shooter style video game on the Nintendo Switch (and the ill-fated Wii U), in which the objective is to cover as much of the play area as possible in your team’s color of ink or paint (or whatever it is) and to attack the other team in order to prevent them from doing the same. This is accomplished through the use of a wide array of “weapons” that range from sprayers and rollers to paint bazookas and ink-powered jetpacks.
My son plays this game quite a bit and I usually just watch. I’ve played a few times and I’m just terrible. At the end of each round, the percentages are displayed on the screen, indicating which team marked the most territory. Here’s the funny thing, no matter whether you’re on the pink team or the green team, you are labeled as the “good guys” and the other team is designated the “bad guys”.
This is how we approach everything in life. We want to shoehorn politics, religion, business, sports, and anything else we can think of, into this model of “good guys” vs. “bad guys”. The 2016 election cycle was the most toxic that I can recall and it revolved around this faulty logic. Each side tried their best to paint the other as the “bad guys”. There was very little talk of what anyone believed in. Hilary Clinton’s entire platform was “I’m not Trump”. Donald Trump’s entire platform consisted of variations of “at least I’m not crooked Hilary”. Not a lot to work with there.
The crazy thing about Splatoon (and many political contests) is that no one knows what they’re fighting for. The only reason you are going head to head with the “bad guys” is that you are the “good guys” and that’s what you are supposed to do. You fight the other team because they are the other team.
It’s completely arbitrary, which is fine when the point is just a few hours of mindless fun. There’s one problem, though. This isn’t a video game. When people’s souls are at stake, the “we’re good, so they’re bad” logic can’t be good enough.
We know this, yet I have seen more Christians bash people of other faiths (by far) than I have seen reach out and actually try to build a connection on common ground. We’ve been programmed to view everything as a dichotomy, which is just not how the world works.
For many, the convenience of this false dicotomy is bettter than the difficult truth of the all-encompassing love of Christ.
Three Sheep and a Lion
The truth about the wolves and sheep is that it isn’t the truth at all. The real story is a story of a lion, a shepherd, and three different sheep.
We are the sheep (even though we sometimes act like wolves) and Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We have concluded that this fact doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone else is a wolf, but let’s go a little deeper.
The Bible tells the story of three types of sheep that are all in need of a shepherd.
The sheep. The other sheep. The lost sheep.
If we are the sheep, who are the “other sheep”? In John 10:16, Jesus speaks of “other sheep” that are “not of this fold”. I believe these to be those who believe in God, maybe going so far as to be actively religious, but lacking a personal experience or relationship with Jesus. I will go so far as to suggest that the adherents of the other Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Islam) would be classified as such. They want to know the God of Abraham. I believe that if they are sincerely seeking God and remain open to his leading, they will be drawn into the beautiful truth of a relationship with Jesus Christ. These are the other sheep.
The “lost sheep” are simply unbelievers. Atheists, agnostics, and the “unchurched” may fall into this category, but I would also include Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahá'ís, Occultists, Wiccans, other Pagans, Satanists, etc.
Another thought on “lost sheep”... Jesus said he would leave the 99 to find the one lost sheep. From that statement, it would seem that we should do the same. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go after the lost sheep, but the problem is we don’t know which lost sheep to go after.
Only the shepherd knows.
Many times I’ve been pretty sure I knew who the lost sheep wasn’t. Many times I’ve been wrong. I would assume that the person in question wasn’t “lost” per se, they knew right where they were, but were perfectly happy there. Oftentimes, it turned out that was the person who was desperately searching for God.
There are certain sheep who are longing to hear the Shepherd's voice, but don't know where to look. (They're just sheep after all...) We must pray that God will lead us to these sheep. A connection with a lost sheep who is looking for the Shepherd is going to be 1,000x more effective than simply yelling the message to 1,000 lost sheep who couldn't care less.
Not only must we pray for guidance; we must pray for sensitivity to the Spirit. God can put that one person right in front of your face and not recognize them. Trust me I know. (More on that next week.)
This brings us to the lion.
The lion is Satan. I Peter 5:8 says that Satan is a “roaring lion” who roams the earth “seeking whom he may devour”. Forget about the wolves. The wolves aren’t wolves, anyway. They’re just other sheep.
Be vigilant regarding the lion, but not fearful. If the sheep are under the protection of the shepherd, they need not be afraid.
This is the importance of evangelism. It is our duty to connect with the other sheep. Sheep of a different fold. Lost sheep. As we connect with them, they will be exposed to the love of Christ and drawn under the protection of the Shepherd.
It all starts with common ground. We can’t connect with people any other way. It may be a daunting task, but we must rise to the occasion. Time is short. We have to close our mouths and open our hearts.
Common ground is there to be found, but actually taking the time to find it has become extremely uncommon.
1. Which sheep do I tend to treat like wolves?
2. How can we change the attitudes in our church culture that cause us to act like wolves ourselves?
3. When discussing religion and politics, where is the line, that if crossed, will damage or destroy my witness?
Check out the first installment of the (Un)Common Ground series here.
Exploring Your Discomfort Zone
There are many reasons that we give for our reluctance in evangelism, but in the end, they are all excuses for us to bunker down in our comfort zone. The “comfort zone” is the silent killer of evangelism. The average “evangelical” Christian does practically nothing that would be considered “evangelism”. Regardless of whether this is due to introversion, fear of rejection, or pure complacency, the culprit is the something we call the “comfort zone”.
Before we go any further, let me define “evangelism”. I’m not particularly concerned with the dictionary definition, but rather a practical definition of the term in the context of this series. In this context, “evangelism” can be defined as: any activity that is undertaken with the intent of connecting with a person of a different faith or a different variation of the same faith. Connecting is the key and developing a deep connection (not conversion) is the end goal.
Allow me to explain what I mean. We cannot convert anyone, nor should we try (I’m sure some of you will disagree), but we can connect with everyone, if we give it a little effort. Connection is an absolute necessity if you hope to have an impact on the world. If the light of Christ is shining through us, everyone we are connected with will be exposed to it. When we connect with others, we put ourselves in a position to share the love of Christ with them. We sow the seed. God gives the increase.
Unfortunately, the people we connect with naturally are just like us. Christian. Conservative. Liberal. White. Black. Hispanic. Rednecks. Metal-heads. Nerds. Jocks. It’s like high school all over again.
Connecting with people who are like us is easy. The more like us they are, the easier the connection. Connecting with people who are different is hard.
Can I let you in on a secret, though?
It’s worth it.
Connecting with people of different backgrounds and faiths is not only personally rewarding, it is a key function of any Christian who wants to contribute to the Kingdom.
Connecting isn’t a part of evangelism. Connecting is evangelism.
Nothing else related to evangelism can happen unless the person we are talking to has a connection with us. Sometimes this connection happens almost instantaneously. Sometimes it takes time. Whatever the case, a certain level of trust is necessary for the listener to let their guard down and really hear what we have to say.
Now that we’ve defined our goal, it’s time to wave goodbye to our comfort zone. On second thought, let’s just go ahead and demolish it. Be sure to “not leave one stone on another”, to quote the Book of Luke (albeit completely out of context).
It’s time to leave the proverbial nest and explore what I like to call our discomfort zone. This is where we stop putting our comfort first and start putting the mission of the cross first. The mission of the cross is about others. It’s about God. It’s about us. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is the story of God working and moving in ways that draw us closer and back to Him.
The cross is the epitome of this central mission of Christianity. When we are connecting with others, we are fulfilling the mission of the cross. We are taking the love of Christ into the world and we are channeling that love into the lives of others.
Who exactly do I find in my discomfort zone, you ask? Well, that depends on where your comfort zone is. For most people in my circles, growing up in a Pentecostal church in a small Midwestern town, the “discomfort zone people” were various shades of brown, they were politically or religiously liberal, they were Muslims and Buddhists and Wiccans and Baptists and sometimes they were other Pentecostals.
During much of my youth, there was an unspoken rule that if someone wasn’t just like you, they were off limits. They were heretics. They were the enemy. There was no fathomable reason why you would ever want to talk to them.
That attitude is counterproductive and undermines the mission of the cross. It's time for a new approach. Let's start with the mission of the cross and work from there.
Your discomfort zone may look different than mine, but you’ll know it when you see it.
For some of the more traditional types it may be people with tattoos or piercings. For the more modern (or post-modern) among us, the opposite may be true. At any rate, it's time to step out of our comfort zone and connect with a world that desperately needs to connect with Christ.
All this talk of exploring our discomfort zone reminds me of a couple of trips we took to California several years ago. Keep in mind that my wife and I were born and raised in southern Indiana. I was pretty open-minded, but I was also very sheltered. I didn’t realize just how sheltered I was until that first trip to Los Angeles.
One of the most impactful experiences of our time in California was helping with the weekly breakfast that the church provided for the homeless in the community. By “helping”, I mean that we broke bread with the homeless. And by “broke bread”, I mean that we ate breakfast burritos.
When we showed up, we were told there was plenty of help in preparing and serving the meal, but there was always room for someone to simply sit and eat with the people who had gathered there.
I had honestly looked forward to this experience. What I had envisioned, however, was standing in a line in the parking lot, dipping oatmeal into styrofoam bowls as the people filed through, the safety of the serving tables creating a comfortable buffer for my personal space.
I would do my part. I would feel good about myself. I would come away more grateful. But my personal bubble would remain intact. I would remain safely inside my carefully curated comfort zone.
That’s not what happened.
Once I realized that my comfort zone behind the imaginary oatmeal station was a no-go, I had to come to terms with this involuntary foray into my discomfort zone. I grabbed my breakfast burrito and sat down across from a homeless man who I would guess to be in his late 50s, although it was hard to tell, due to the ravages of hard living and years spent out in the elements.
As I sat down, I shook his hand and introduced myself. As I did, I glanced down at his hands. They were covered in sores, some of which were oozing. I hoped that if I flinched it hadn’t been noticeable.
None of the discharge had gotten on my hands, but my mind was doing somersaults. I was envisioning myself wasting away from one of the many terrible diseases to which I had undoubtedly just been exposed.
It didn’t seem to bother him in the least. A little ooze on the tortilla didn’t stop him from wolfing it down in the way that only a truly hungry man wolfs down his food. Everytime he took a bite, I caught a whiff of the alcohol on his breath. His body odor was offensive, but not overwhelming. It increased in intensity each time he shifted in his chair.
I was reminded of a story recounted by a missionary (I believe it was Bro. and Sis. Alvear of the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus Christ) that I heard at one church or another as a kid. (I always loved when missionaries would come to make their presentations. They were my childhood heroes.) This couple were somewhere in South America, where the wife visited a leper colony.
Now, you have to understand that leprosy is not just a terrifying disease; the effects of the disease are pretty disturbing. Open sores. Disfigurement. Loss of fingers, toes, and noses. Fortunately, this is very rare in most countries, but in some parts of the world, leprosy is one of the most demoralizing diagnoses one can receive.
While at the leper colony, this lady was invited by the people of the colony to join them in a meal. She was horrified as one of the ladies took a piece of the bread she had baked and handed it to her guest with a disfigured, leprous hand; open sores covering her flesh. This missionary was revolted by the sight, but knew that her chances of reaching these people would quickly diminish to zero with the disrespect of rejecting the bread that was offered. She whispered a prayer for protection and mental fortitude and took the bread with a smile.
If she could eat the bread prepared by those hands, surely I could endure the situation in which I found myself. He hadn’t even touched my burrito. That did nothing to stop the squirming in my brain, however...
I swallowed my pride and forced that first bite. We sat and talked as we ate our chorizo and egg burritos. Each bite was a little easier than the last. I don’t think I have ever seen someone so happy to eat a burrito. I know I’ve never seen someone so happy to have a conversation with another human being. He cherished that moment of connection. You could see it on his face and in his demeanor. The human connection was nearly as important as the food.
Neither one of us may have realized it in the moment, but the human connection was more important than the food.
Both the hunger and the loneliness were needs to be met and the people of the Lighthouse were meeting them both. Although both needs were met, the hunger would undoubtedly be back a short time later. The human connection had a more lasting impact.
The love of Christ that was communicated through the actions of the volunteers who prepared and served the food, engaged in conversation, and simply treated their homeless neighbors like human beings was deep and life changing.
That man didn’t experience any change in his social status on that Saturday morning. He would sleep another night on a concrete bed. He was still a slave to the bottle. He would be hungry again in a few hours. Nothing had perceptibly changed, but something not entirely imperceptible had shifted. There was something different about the way he walked as he pushed his grocery cart down Tyrone Avenue.
He walked a little quicker. More sure of himself. Shoulders back. Head up. Purpose in his step. I never forgot the impact that a little kindness had on that man or the impact that Saturday morning and the love of the group of volunteers (who gave every Saturday morning to the less fortunate) had on me.
If we are to truly make an impact on the world, these are the kinds of connections we are going to have to make. Uncomfortable connections with people who are not quite like us. People from different religious, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. People who we have been led to believe are the enemy. People who have been convinced they have no value.
Jesus loves them just as much as he loves you.
During that breakfast in Van Nuys and the outreach in Hollywood and the worship services on Sunday, I saw a love that transcended race, ethnicity, religion, and status.
Sometimes I dream of California. The nightmarish traffic. The weirdness of Hollywood. The beauty of the coastline. The posh life of Beverly Hills. Cruising down Sunset Boulevard. Horchata, churros, and bootleg DVDs in the fashion district. But mostly of the little perfectly imperfect community of believers in Van Nuys that showed me what it means to meet someone from uncommon circumstances on common ground and connect with them through the love of Christ.
1. What is my comfort zone?
2. When was the last time I willingly explored my discomfort zone?
3. Is the mission of the cross more important to me than my own comfort?
4. What uncomfortable thing is Jesus asking me to do to?
5. What can I do this week to try to explore my discomfort zone?
6. Do I know someone who is in need (spiritually or physically) that I can reach out to this week?
Who am I?
I'm a random guy.