During my twenty years of being a believer, I have had well-meaning believers on multiple occasions try to convert me. The two most memorable experiences occurred in college. The first took place in a playground after dark where a friend and I were waiting for a movie to start in a nearby theater. A young man with a sour face approached my friend and I as we sat in the swings. He asked the perfunctory evangelistic questions but seemed dissatisfied with our responses. Finally I blurted,”I go to a Christian college! I want to be a missionary!” I hoped this would get him off my back. Even as I said it I knew how he would respond: “Going to a Christian college doesn’t make you a Christian.” I don’t know how we finally got him to leave, but eventually he did, and he took his miserable expression with him.
The second experience happened as I was staying on the CalPoly Tech campus in California completing training in order to go overseas to China in order to teach English and share Christ. During our breaks, I enjoyed getting to walk around the campus and relax, breathing in the fragrant eucalyptus trees and reveling in the dry climate. One day as I was sitting on a bench reading, a young woman came up and sat next to me. She was clearly nervous. I cannot remember specifically how she attempted to convert me since she was more subtle than the previous fellow, but the result was the same. She too was not convinced I was a Christian. When she walked away, I was relieved to have the whole awkward conversation over, but there was more to come. I stayed on the campus for about two weeks, and it became clear that this girl was stalking me because every day, though I went to different places, I seemed to run into her. She continued to try and press me to accept various things she said. She also seemed to have notes, and it dawned on me that someone was coaching her in her premeditated assault on me. I felt sorry for her, but it also made me angry. It gave me an insecurity about myself and my faith, causing me to wonder if there was something about me that proclaimed, “I am not who I say I am.” I felt unclean, as though I was not measuring up to some standard–one which I was not even informed about. What did I have to do to get these people to finally understand that I was a believer?
Looking back, it is painfully clear what they wanted from me–conformity to their expectations and ideas of what they thought a Christian was. I say “painfully” because this to me is one of the great weaknesses of our evangelistic movements. We are in many ways more concerned with getting others to think like us than we are about people having a meaningful encounter with God. Though I speak disparagingly of these two people, I know that I do the same thing. As a minister’s wife, I have had my “ministry” relationships. What I forget, though, is how demeaning this idea can actually be to the people we are “ministering” to.
If I approach a person who knows nothing of Christ with the mindset that I must somehow get them to agree with propositions, then I cannot see them in the fullness of who they are. I cannot see them as people, deeply loved by God, if I see them as projects. I will not be able to be patient with the process of sharing Christ with them while checking off doctrinal checkpoints in my mind.
When people caricaturize Christians it is often about this very thing. The Puritans, who were not nearly as bad as they were painted to be, were often very specific about the behaviors they accepted as Christian. Those who didn’t toe the line were punished in various ways even before the law. While we would mostly agree this is taking it too far, we do have a list of moral expectations that we believe mark a true Christian. Often, however, these expectations are formed more through our cultural conditioning than from the Bible. That’s not to say that these ideas are divorced from the Bible–only that we tend to emphasize the ones that mesh with our cultural upbringing and downplay those that do not.
There is no easy way to resolve this since the discussions of these ideas can become very intense (we only need to peruse Facebook or Twitter to confirm this). The first step though is believing in the value of each person, especially the person who disagrees with you. Jesus consistently commented (and Paul concurred) that we are to treat others as we would like to be treated. That certainly does not mean we can’t disagree, but it does mean that we discuss it in a way that still shows respect for the other person. Second, we need to be patient with the place people are on their journey towards truth with a humility that understands we haven’t got perfect theology ourselves. When Jesus interacted with people, he always knew just what they needed to understand. With the Samaritan woman, he brought the topic to her lifestyle. With Nicodemus, he discussed being born again. With the Pharisees, he revealed their hypocrisy. We cannot hope to see every heart with the clarity that Jesus did (and still does), but we can certainly ask for some of His wisdom.
And as I ask for wisdom, I also wonder what message Jesus might have for me should we meet face to face. That thought urges me to humility when I am tempted to think that all my “learning” might mean I’ve got God completely figured out. While I take seriously the command to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV), I also take seriously “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13: 1-2 ESV).
As I progress, learning as I go, I pray that I can be used by God to help others see Him a bit more clearly. And I will do my best to let the understanding of His truth, be it step by step, alter my views and expectations of others and myself.