Many people are content to live their lives privately, sharing all manner of opinions about relatively trivial matters, but keeping their core beliefs to themselves. After all, keeping your head down and your mouth shut will often allow conflict and tension to just pass you by (like not making eye contact with the teacher when you don’t know the answer).
However, through conversations and casual questions, we can often learn about someone else’s beliefs. It might range from a quiet affirmation (“I’m a Muslim”), or a defensive response (“I’m a Methodist, but not like those guys over on 12th street”). It might even result in an interesting story about someone’s upbringing, conversion, or other experiences (“My family used to go here, but then my girlfriend brought me to visit there, and…”).
I think that these can be good conversations, but only if they are conversations. When one party blows up or feels compelled to immediately tell the other person why their beliefs aren’t valid, the discussion isn’t likely to go much further. (Or, at least one of the parties will have tuned the other one out, long before the talking stops.)
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t share our faith with others (see 1 Peter 3:14-16). When one has found the truth, it seems only fair to explain our journey to find it. In these cases, though, I propose a question:
How does your faith / belief / point of view impact how you live your life?
This is intended to be an honest question, asked without malice. (You might have to rephrase it a bit so that it doesn’t sound cold, though.) It’s not meant to be a sarcastic comment, nor a form of entrapment.
Instead, it’s an opportunity to genuinely learn about someone else. How do her beliefs about right and wrong impact what she buys, eats, or does? Does he believe strongly enough in something to do more than just identify with a group, belief, or faith? What helps a family decide the most important things to teach future generations? Is the promise of a life after this one incentive enough to live this one well? Or if one thinks that this is all we have, does that mean that we should work to leave a legacy…or just party while we still can?
Simple statements about one’s culture, belief, or worldview can be easily misinterpreted. If someone revealed himself to be a Mormon while you were talking with him, would that trigger a bunch of pre-conceived notions in your mind? What if your friend said that she was an atheist – would you expect that she was nurturing hostility towards people of faith?
While making disciples was clearly commanded by Jesus (see Matthew 28:19), our personal testimony may not make any sense to those around us if we don’t take the time to learn where they come from. Even Paul, talking to a group of philosophers in Athens, spoke to them in a context that they could relate to:
So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
Acts 17:22-23 NASB
Paul didn’t start his conversation by blasting the Athenians polytheistic beliefs (even though he didn’t share them). He offered a message to them about something they sought: not just wisdom, but an answer to the possibility that they had missed a deity. In return, Paul offered them the chance to meet the eternal Creator of the Universe – the true God who has proven Himself more powerful than all of the Greek pantheon.
Not all of his hearers believed Paul, but he had the chance to at least be part of the conversation.
But then…and this is where things might get sticky…we would need to be prepared for the same question, wouldn’t we? Do we just take on a label, so that we can be categorized in a particular demographic? Do we “check the box” with routines and rituals that have the appearance of religion? Or, do our actions flow – practically bursting out of us – from the outpouring of our love for Jesus, based on His example of love for others?
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
John 14:15 NASB
Hopefully, when our walk with Jesus is pervasive – when it is as much a part of ourselves as our own identities – talking with other people about our faith (and listening to their point of view) will be about explaining our own joy, and not about trying to convince someone that they are wrong.