November 6, 2015

Christian Cringversations

Are Christians actually doing any evangelism at all?  Non-Christians don’t think so.  At least that’s the conclusion of a fascinating article in The Guardian yesterday, in response to a report that “most people dislike being talked to about Jesus”, in the way that most people disliked being talked to (or at) about anything. And it concludes that, when all is said and done, it’s not fear of offence, or apologetic wisdom that is our concern, but good old common garden variety cringe. Simply put, we fear being cringe-dwellers, and we see others cringe when we bring up Jesus in a “cringversation”.

The article uncovers some interesting truths (in an English setting) including:

  1. A third of evangelicals claim to talk about Jesus to someone who isn’t a Christian every week.
  2. A third of people in the UK claim to not even know a Christian, never mind have had a conversation about Jesus.

To which one wag may suggest if he were so inclined, “Hey, maybe we should get those one-thirds together and see what would happen!”

The writer makes this observation in relation to evangelism by Christians:

Many are convinced they are already doing this. A third report talking about Jesus to non-Christians every week. This is literally incredible. If true, it would mean that every single non-Christian in the country gets talked to about Jesus every six months. But when asked, non-Christians reveal that they are entirely unaware of all this evangelism. Nearly half have never had a conversation about Jesus. A third don’t think they know any Christians at all, let alone evangelicals.

Now that may be discomfiting to you as a Christian, as an evangelical, and as someone committed to evangelism (assuming you tick those boxes), but here’s what is also interesting.  Despite the apparent religious zealotry, bigotry and plain old fashioned threat to civil society that Christians are supposed to be, the average punter thinks these unsighted Christians are just normal people, which is what the article actually goes on to say:

This may be, of course, because Christians appear alarmingly normal. Among the Christians actually known to non-Christians, very small proportions are described as narrow-minded, hypocritical or homophobic, even among younger people. This contrasts quite clearly with perceptions of Christianity or of the institutional churches revealed by other polls. But I’d guess that a part of this normality is that they don’t in fact talk much about Jesus, however much they may believe or hope that they do.

So, bottom line, we like to think we evangelise, most non-Christians don’t think we do, and they like the fact that we don’t.  Now I would want to add at this point that there is a level of sophistication to our efforts that outsiders may not get.  After all we have all read our worldview books, and gone to our apologetics talks.  We realise that we need to get to Jesus, but that in order to do so we may have to do some deconstruction of the unexamined worldview of our colleagues and friends. But it’s one thing to circle the airport and another thing to land the plane, and there are some obvious reasons why we generally don’t do it. Here’s the kicker in the article.  Read it carefully:

The problem for the Church of England … is that white middle class people are no longer expected to be Christian. So when they reveal that they are, it can be an occasion for embarrassment all round. The Oxbridge and public school Christians in Anna Strhan’s study did not have any difficulty proselytising if they were doing volunteer social work on council estates at the weekends. Then they were outside the constraints of their class. But in the hedge funds and City law firms where they worked, they could not talk about their faith. It was just too embarrassing, not something people do.

Similarly, it was members of the moderate and mainstream acceptable Church of Sweden who found their religion embarrassing; pentecostalists and other social outsiders were happy to talk about faith.

Pentecostalists and other social outsiders. It’s as if the gospel is good news for the poor or something!  Good news for those who get nothing but bad news.

Pentecostals and other social outsiders.  It’s an interesting observation is it not? And it rings true, at least in my own experience.  My late-teens to early twenties were inside a Pentecostal setting, and after my earlier middle class evangelical experience it was a shock.  And we’re not just talking the tongues and the falling over. We’re talking the single mums, difficult mental illness cases, the underclass, the unemployed, unemployable and unlikeable.

To go to that Assemblies of God church in the 1980s (back before most Pentecostalists became Pentecostal-lite, bought a warehouse and a bunch of sound and vision) there was every chance that if you turned up to an AOG church you would have a power encounter with God. You didn’t play fast and loose with him because he was just that little bit more powerful than you.

Now you may pooh-pooh that idea, but perhaps that’s because you get your power encounters elsewhere.  In the middle class privatised secular agenda so many of us sign off on,  power encounters  are experienced at work, closing deals, social life, overseas holidays of self-discovery, and further education. Power encounters may come our way all too easily for us to want an actual power encounter with the living God at church. That kind of power encounter may disturb the other ones, or call them into question or, worse still, require us to let go of them.

But for the social outsider?  To paraphrase the LOTTO ad where the production line worker is trudging and drudging through another dreary day: “One Powerball and I am out of here.”

In that AOG setting I watched as people who had terribly broken lives experienced something that wasn’t cool, wasn’t hip, wasn’t worth anything on the ASX, be given meaning in their lives as the Powerball of the gospel swept through their lives.  Yes, they still had problems.  Yes, they still were social outsiders.  But they realised that the king had given them a seat at the table.  And from that far down the food chain, that looked a pretty good meal!

And I watched myself as I – broken by my parents’ divorce and my self-righteousness – found some genuine healing from a God who had almost been a deistic figure in my life up until that point, a Moon God – clear, bright and a little bit distant and cold.  Still haven’t figured out how some of the things that happened happened, but happen they did. Powerful encounters for a disempowered teenager.

Oh, and we had no problem telling other people about these.  Or about Jesus, more to the point.  After all, what did they have to lose? What did we have to lose?  Most of these people were already social outsiders and dealt exclusively in their lives with other social outsiders. It’s not as if, when we embarrassed ourselves by talking about Jesus, that we were going to be disinvited to that trendy dinner party on the moored yacht that the firm’s senior partner was throwing next weekend.

I love this conclusion in the article:

Once you have defined yourself as an outsider, and Christianity as part of that outsiderishness, then it becomes quite easy to talk about your enthusiasms. The trouble then is that very few people want to join you in the outside group.

When should that defining of yourself occur?  Occasionally/Often/Never?  To whom should it occur? Some/All/The Poor?

Hebrews 13 gives us the answer, in the context of a Christian community that at the time was worried that it was becoming a pariah to the surrounding culture, and that was desperately clinging to its social insider status:

11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:11-4)

Coming to Jesus defines us a social outsider.  And if that’s too big a threat to you in your context, whether that is your financial, social, sexual, educational context, then you’re going to stay safely inside the city avoiding the cringe of walking through those gates to the exposure of a hill outside the walls.

Yet there is a city coming in which such social outsiders will be the social insiders.  And it’s an enduring city.  It’s not the city where this world’s law and commerce and ideas are generated from, the city in which it’s socially embarrassing to admit to loving Jesus. Rather it’s an enduring city in which those of us who are not ashamed of Jesus and his words in this generation, will find themselves seated at a banquet far beyond the wildest dreams of any degustation Heston Blumenthal can conjure up.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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