“I’ll say this for you, you’re not a jerk.” That comment changed the way I thought about my faith and the way I go about sharing it. Some context may help. I was sitting across the table from a friend who was exploring the Christian faith. She had no background in Christianity except for a fire and brimstone style evangelist she’d occasionally hear preach on the quad of her college. The conversation started around the difference between the Christian understanding of grace, but quickly moved toward the Christian sexual ethic.
She politely but firmly told me that she found the ethic I hold—the one held by Augustine, her grandmother, and Barack Obama during his first term—was regressive, oppressive, and otherwise morally bankrupt. The up side: she left thinking I wasn’t a jerk. The down side: my “unjerkliness” made no difference with regard to her faith, or lack thereof. Of course, this conversation isn’t unique at all. Indeed, even when it doesn’t happen explicitly, it’s no doubt happening implicitly every time we share our faith in the Modern West. Our winsomeness won’t carry the luggage we think it will because people aren’t rejecting the faith because they don’t feel welcome, but because they don’t want in.
It has to be noted that there was a time in which winsomeness really did carry the weight many think it will today. In the 80’s and 90’s, there were real incentives to being a Christian, you got some social capital out of going to church—heck, you’d probably even get a spouse! There was a feeling, though, that church might not want you. It was formal, you were casual; it was serious, you yucked it up on the weekends; it was pure, you were sinful. There was an assumption that the living room of the church was essentially good, the problem was that the front door was imposing and the foyer was daunting.
In that context, all the church had to do was remove an obstacle for one to come in the doors: the incentive was built-in. The way this worked out in most evangelical churches was by becoming more—for the lack of a better word—lighthearted. The less formal, serious, or otherwise fastidious the worship service was, the more likely the listener was to feel accepted, welcomed, at home.
Here’s the thing, though: the reasons people aren’t Christian today are different than the reasons they weren’t 30 years ago. Let’s go back to the conversation that got me thinking about this. By saying I wasn’t a jerk, my friend was telling me I wasn’t the obstacle. The reason she wasn’t interested in Jesus wasn’t because of who I was, it was because of who He was. In his brilliant little book Indispensable, David Cassidy emphasizes this very point:
“Whoever Jesus was, he was not a ‘nice’ person spouting lofty platitudes about peace; no, Jesus was a threat, despite his goodness—or, rather, precisely because of his goodness. Jesus was good but was considered as good as dead by his opponents, both religious and secular, because he was everything they weren’t and the people knew it. For those leaders, it was ‘Jesus or me,’ not ‘Jesus for me’!”
The above quote is helpful because it shows that being loving, kind—yes, even “winsome”—is a good thing. Yet, we must remember the example set by our Savior who was hated, despised, and rejected not in spite of his love and service, but because of it. As the old hymn declares, “Let the world despise and leave me, they have left my Savior too.”
Our kindness comes from our love for God and neighbor, not because we find it to be an effective strategy. In this way, the post-Christian world in which we find ourselves in today isn’t that different from the pre-Christian world of yesterday. Now, like then, people stay home on Sunday not because they view themselves as deficient, but because they view Jesus and the church as deficient.
So where does that leave the church in her mission to disciple the nations? I said earlier that when there was incentive to become a Christian, the church became lighthearted. A less kind way to phrase it would be that the church became gimmicky, if not goofy. Now, while I’d argue that, say, having an MMA fighter do stunts from the pulpit never provided a compelling motive for people to stay in the church, it’s important to understand that today it won’t even get people in the door.
Today, non-believers don’t just need to feel welcomed, they need to understand what they’re being invited into and why it’s worthwhile. There is good news: the Christian faith is inherently deep, it really does provide a credible, serious explanation for reality. Before it gave us lime green shirts that ripped off the Sprite logo to say “Spirit,” it gave us the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
As important as it may be to show that we’re not jerks, until we’re able to show that Jesus isn’t a joke we can’t expect our winsomeness to accomplish today what it did yesterday. We don’t need to lower the bar of formality to become welcoming. Rather, we have the opportunity to raise the bar of thoughtfulness so as to again become relevant, credible witnesses to the slain Lamb who has begun His reign.