Like everybody else, I am prone to make assumptions based on personal experience. The problem with this – like every type of bias in general – is that the experience is limited.
As one who has spent a bit of time in the academic setting, I have certain assumptions about the openness which people will have concerning Christianity: these are mainly that Canadians aren’t really that receptive about it. My bias, however, was somewhat pleasantly knocked down a few pegs when I came across a recent Angus Reid poll.
- 54% of Canadians “say that personal faith and religious belief is important to them in terms of defining their personal identity”.
- 59% say that this faith and religious belief helps define their “overcoming challenges in life”.
- 52% say that this faith and religious belief affects “how they view problems in their society”.
In other words, over 50 percent of Canadians see a connection between religious belief, personal identity, life’s challenges, and problems of society. In fact, it seems the average Canadian sees spirituality as important in both their internal and their external life.
Hard to believe, right?
These stats are lovely news indeed for those of us who want to have more influence in our university campuses. These polls are essentially letting us know there is more interest in spirituality and its effects than we might think; that our classmates are not wholly opposed to being approached about spirituality; that the field of harvest might be less hostile to being gathered.
This is not a cup half empty or half full question; the cup is above the half mark.
And yet, as we read the statistics, I think two words are important to keep in mind: courage for one, as the possibility for talking about spirituality is better than expected; but also prudence, as we don’t want to waste this opportunity by being unwise in our efforts at outreach.
Paul, in Colossians, instructs us that not only are we to be mindful of the time we have left for the harvest, but also provides us with a few instructions on how to do it. He says we are to behave wisely:
Do not spoil your chances to touch others with the word through a lack of wisdom … Redeem the time by making the most of every opportunity. Season your conversation with grace. This remains the most attractive and appropriate option to respond in every situation. (Colossians 4:5-6)
Another translation (the Amplified) says,
Let your speech at all times be gracious (pleasant and winsome), seasoned [as it were] with salt, [so that you may never be at a loss] to know how you ought to answer anyone [who puts a question to you].
Personally, I have heard the emphasis on ‘seizing the time,’ or opportunity that we have to present the gospel. However, it is easy to forget – in our proper zealousness – that I am to also make sure that my message is first wisely formed and then delivered: i.e., that it includes grace (I love the way the Amplified version employs the words ‘winsome’ and ‘pleasant’).
How do I find out just what this ‘pleasant and winsome’ is for my target audience? I think, first, as any missionary must, we have to know, and know thoroughly, the language of the people we are trying to ‘win’. And not just language, but the culture too.
When I read that more than 50% of Canadians state that ‘personal faith and religious belief is important to them,’ I would like to know what ‘personal faith’ means. What constitutes this ‘religious belief’ that more than 50 percent of Canadians think plays an important role in not only their own personal lives, but also for society as a whole?
I think then, alongside being armed with that knowledge, as well as being equipped with a wise grace, my efforts will not be wasted, or worse, turn my audience off because I am not speaking their language or causing offense.
To this end, I try to think about the following four elements before even contemplating sharing my perspectives on spirituality:
Ulterior motives stink
People can smell an ulterior motive like a fart in a car. I should not be ‘loving’ somebody to get them saved. Neither should I be their friend in hopes of eventually winning them to Christ. Being Christian means loving unconditionally. We are not, for instance, loving towards people to get them saved, they get saved as a result of seeing our love. The gospel is not some utilitarian thing.
You can’t rush it
Being in a rush is generally bad. Tolkien, using the voice of Pippen, says, “Short cuts make long delays.” When I think of evangelism I often think of how William Wilberforce, in his work at eradicating slavery, had a very long endgame – like 30 years.
He was not into the “how to make someone like you in 90 seconds or less” (that is an actual book, by the way). I need to be willing to have a long endgame when I am talking about my faith perspective. Heaven forbid that, by being in a rush, I wreck not only my opportunity, but anybody else’s in the future also.
Be all things to all people
For those of us in the academic setting, it might be tempting to remove ourselves from the hard topics – relativism, questions of gender, art, or ‘worldly politics’ – but how can we engage culture if we have no understanding of it, or no willingness to know what the issues are?
How can we be winsome and pleasant to someone if we have no idea about their personal identity, social interactions, or what they have been engaging in culturally? Salt is no good sitting on the shelf, it must be put into the soup to do anything. Being in the soup, to me, means being actively involved with the culture in which we dwell. Thus, I so value when Andy Crouch and others talk of being culture makers. This, I think, is the definition of being ‘salty’.
Two ears, one mouth
I heard this little adage I thought was cute: “God gave us two ears and one mouth, use them in that ratio.” In other words, I am to listen more. In their heavily footnoted book Unchristian, authors Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons state, “[we are] stunned by how many young outsiders said Christians … are poor listeners.”
It is a major indictment of unchristian behavior that outsiders say we are lousy listeners. We all probably agree. I hope to God that I can listen better, because I know I have very little respect, or patience for that matter, with someone who will not share in conversational communion – i.e. one of the loveliest of human actions which is a two-person activity.
If I demonstrate that I can offer my attention to someone – it’s a form of payment, thus ‘paying attention’ – I find that they are often quite willing to reciprocate.
These latest Angus Reid stats are indeed lovely: first for us Christians, but also for those of us who are eager to engage with our culture in their journey spiritually. However, it’s important to keep in mind that despite more potential receptivity, we must not blow our chances at being winsome and pleasant. Along with being bold, Paul said, “So I become all things to all people, that I may save some of them by whatever means are possible.”