I've never wanted to turn into one of those Christians who can't access the shared vocabulary of mainstream culture, a believer whose conversations are laced with Christianese. But oh how hard it is to avoid being steeped in cliches! Last week, as I traveled to Maine and back, I had the immense privilege of explaining the gospel and presenting my conversion testimony numerous times. And each time, I struggled to find a shared reference point and to purge myself of church words.
It started with the airport driver. He was Tunisian and a lapsed Islamic/Christian practitioner. That sounds confusing, but he was raised in both faiths because his father was Muslim and his mother was Catholic. On our way to the airport, we discussed religion. He said that it doesn't matter what religion you are, because all religions lead to God. And religion is at the root of our problems, anyway. All the major wars were because of religion. So that's why he is not religious. I acknowledged his thinking but then was able to offer my viewpoint that all of our wars are because of our sin and that's why we all need a Savior who can rescue us from the penalty for and consequences of sin. We had a respectful exchange and I learned much about Tunisia, but that conversation set the tone for the week.
Over the next several days, I was able to talk about the gospel with a Dutch man, a French woman, and two Americans--all non-religious people. I was also able to talk a little bit about faith with a lapsed Hindu from India. Then at the airport on the way home, I was picked up by yet another Tunisian driver, an active Muslim, and we had the same conversation. What fascinated me was how nearly identical these conversations were. On one hand, I was grateful to meet these folks and learn from them. They were all uniformly gracious and even genuinely interested, to a point. On the other hand, I couldn't help but notice that they faithfully repeated similar ideas. It seems that the "prince of this age" has been spreading the same propaganda: all religions lead to God so it doesn't matter which one you choose; religion itself leads to war and is responsible for all wars; and you can be spiritual in your own way as you define it.
So it's interesting to be in a conversation where I and my beliefs are seen to be the reason for so much trouble in this world, whereas I see myself as an object of mercy before a holy and just God. Sometimes our perspectives never seemed to find common ground. A few people objected to Christians evangelizing others. Why couldn't religion just be a private matter? Well, some belief systems structurally can't adapt to that view. With one man, I tried to explain why Christians are commissioned to spread what we know to be the good news of mercy and salvation. It's intellectually dishonest to call oneself a Christian and not talk about it. Our very belief system is predicated upon making sure others know about Christ's gift of forgiveness and salvation. A second man challenged that benevolent description, saying that Christians always have an ulterior motive when talking to others, whether it's the overt, arm-twisting hard-core form of evangelism or the "deceptive" slow-boil of friendship evangelism (his descriptions).
This age is blind to the realities of sin and hell. If you don't acknowledge them, then a Savior doesn't seem to be a big deal. No wonder people yawn at the idea of salvation. If Christianity is marketed as a parody of current culture ("I heart Jesus" or "Got Jesus?"), then there's nothing unique about our claims. Christianity can be seen as a kind of annoying hobby, and always a late adopter at that. Or if Christianity is sold as a self-help system ("your best life ever"), then anyone who is content with their own life has no incentive to check out the Christianized version.
But in a post-modern age still in love with narrative, we have our conversion stories to tell. This was what people seemed willing to hear and consider on this trip. But if it's billed as a "look at all I have now" prosperity story, or a "woe was me with all my unfulfilled emotional needs" story, I would think we squander a precious opportunity to talk about sin and the unmerited and powerful grace of God. The point of our narrative should not be how much better our lives are with Christ (as true as that is!)--but rather how we became aware of our sinful state and our need to be rescued from it. Other people need to understand that sin is real, it's objective, and it's thoroughly corrupting. The good news of Christ's redemption won't make any sense if the problem of sin is not presented and examined.
I read an article today in Forbes that said GodTube is the single fastest-growing site on the Web. I applaud GodTube's goals to promote faith and to filter out profane or sexual references. Certainly I had no qualms about poking around on GodTube, unlike YouTube. But one quick glance at the current list of most-viewed videos on there reveals a mix of current culture parodies (Christian versions of the Mac vs. PC ad campaigns, for example), music videos, and comedy bits. Where is the power of video to talk about the Divine Rescue?
That's why I am grateful that my church posted the conversion story of Tom and Michelle Herbert. It's a simple video presentation--two people about to get baptized in an unglamorous baptismal font--but the narrative is powerful. For anyone who has given up hope that a loved one in the clutches of addiction can be set free, this testimony will revive your hope and faith. This is Christ's triumph over crack cocaine and homelessness. When the Herberts were baptized, the congregation rose for a thunderous standing ovation. We weren't applauding them, but the power of God to resurrect sinners to life everlasting!