Why are we so reluctant to engage in conversations of faith with our neighbors?
I received the following guest post from a student friend who works for a mainline church in a part-time admin position; let’s call him Dan. Like many younger people today, Dan doesn’t go to church but that doesn’t mean he isn’t paying attention.
To protect his anonymity, some of the setting details have been modified with Dan’s permission. The questions at the conclusion are mine.
I was so very excited to go to the church leadership event my church hosts every spring. I’d been working on it for months and I’d helped to share information with and answer questions for many of the leaders who would come. Together we had collaborated to create something special that people could be inspired by.
When the event happened, I had a great time, a great time. I loved meeting folks from different churches, the presentations, some super informative workshops, and just spending time with people I only knew previously through emails and phone conversations was really great.
I really want to be clear – I am thankful for my experience and for so much that happened at this event.
At the church, as with everything, we always seek ways of improvement. After the event we had a meeting about how we could make the event more accessible, perfect the hospitality, and add value to the event for next year. There was much brainstorming, conversation, and sharing of ideas.
One thing I wanted to share was my experience of what happened during meals. For meals I sat at round tables with everyone else. The tables were great for mixing groups of folks up and encouraging conversation, but pretty early on I noticed a pattern. It went something like this:
- People would sit down.
- Introductions – going around the table with a variation of your name and church.
- It would become my turn – I’d say my name and that I didn’t go to church.
- Bodies shifted, heads tilted, someone would say Oh -mumble mumble…
- I became invisible.
The conversation would then turn to the variety of different subjects, but even though I tried to be part of those conversations – I only received short one or two word answers. At one table I was completely ignored – completely.
It felt like a door had closed on my face. There were all these interesting people who I wanted to connect with, who I wanted to work with and engage with, who I wanted to share a meal with – and here I was with all of them – but I felt that I had just suddenly gone from being welcome to being tolerated. I was at a table full of people…eating alone.
I saw this as an opportunity- ask me why I don’t go to church, ask how a guy like me, a non-church goer, ends up working for a church. Even to change the topic, to ask about the weather, to tell me that it was going to rain tomorrow, to continue to treat me like I existed in their world – that would have been fine.
I was there, ready to engage, ready to listen – but what did I hear? …crickets…
Now, not everyone is an evangelist. I get that. I really, really do.
But I also believe in some of the church values I’ve encountered like Open Hearts – Open Minds – Open Doors. I really, really do.
I just wish that church folks understood that the secular world isn’t out there; you don’t have to go very far to find someone who doesn’t go to church. It’s very likely that we are at your table already. We’ve sat down, broken bread with you, passed the potatoes.
Now, are you going to shoo us out the door, or engage with the secular world and pass the gravy?
Questions for Reflection
In his reflection, Dan expresses a clear desire and openness to engaging in conversations with people about the church and even his participation. Why do you think Dan received the silent treatment he did? Would you have responded differently if you were at his table?
Some people consider one’s faith to be a personal thing. In some circles ‘evangelism’ is a dirty word.
- Does such an understanding allow for any form of evangelism?
- If so, what form could that evangelism take? Is it possible to evangelize in a way that is respectful of others?
As fewer people grow up within an organized faith tradition, the church needs to reconsider many of its assumptions about what people know and what people are open to.
- What are some of the assumptions we make that we need to abandon?
- In your opinion, what shifts are necessary in how we share our faith?
As I consider the question of evangelism and the church, it strikes me as important to mark a distinction between arrogance and confidence.
Evangelism grounded in arrogance assumes it has all the answers and that there is inherently something wrong with those who question or reject its tenets. Confidence, however, is found when we believe we have something worth offering the world but it doesn’t preclude that we can listen and learn from others questions and vantage points.
- That said, what are some of the barriers we have to sharing our faith with others?
- Do you believe these barriers are grounded in our desire to avoid arrogance, a lack of confidence, or something else entirely?
Photo Credit: “Lonely Lunch” by Flickr User Sal, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.