It’s been a year and a half since I left the pastorate of a local church. For sixteen years, I walked people through Scripture and helped them wrestle with how to apply it to their lives. Along the way, I made some assumptions. Many whom I taught had been in the church a long time. They knew how to navigate their Bibles reasonably well. They were generally familiar with major Bible stories, if not much more. And so I taught with certain assumptions that people already knew this or that, believing it was rarely necessary to re-hash the basics.
For the last year and a half, my assumptions have been challenged, at least for the larger church in Houston. During these 18 months I have taught in a variety of well-resourced congregations. I’ve also met with hundreds of Christians in offices, homes, and coffee shops. And along the way I’ve changed my assumptions about how familiar Christians in general are with the what, why, and how of their faith. Maybe what I’ve learned will make you re-think your assumptions as well.
Many Christians can’t tell you what Christianity is all about.
One of my favorite questions to ask is: “If you had to describe to someone what Christianity is all about, what would you say?” Sometimes, I ask this of people who do not call themselves Christians to see what their perspective of Christianity is. It’s not surprising that they come up with broad-ranging descriptions of the message of Christianity. But what is most revealing to me is how few Christians can offer much better clarity. You might be quick to say, “Well, that’s probably because they are not really Christians after all.” I wouldn’t be so quick to make that judgment though. In many cases, I think Christians have a number of the basics right, but are poor at communicating them very well. But that’s a problem too, isn’t it? What if you were to ask the “What is Christianity all about?” question to everyone at your church, what percentage would include something of sin and judgment, would tell of Christ and His grace, or would speak of faith instead of works in order to know Christ’s forgiveness? Based on the responses I’ve received of late, I am guessing it’s a lot fewer than you think.
Even fewer Christians know why they believe what they do.
I like to help people think through why they believe what they do regardless of their faith background. When it comes to Christians, I’ll ask questions like: “If someone asked you how you know God is real and not a figment of your imagination, what would you say?” And “If someone wonders if the Bible is more than just some man-made stories that probably aren’t even true, what would be your response?” Or, I might ask, “Suppose someone believes the existence of evil and suffering in the world is a clear defeater for the existence of God, what would you say?” Frequently, when I ask these questions, I get a blank stare. Christians by and large have no idea how to respond to these questions, even if they are among the minority who can communicate what Christianity is all about. In other words, even Christians who are clear on what to believe rarely know why they believe it. The best many can say is: “Well, I just have faith.” Some people consider Christianity blind faith, which I am afraid for many Christians isn’t too far from the truth.
A tiny few have any sense of how to share Christ with others in an effective way.
Ask a Christian if she thinks it is important to tell others about Christ and she will likely say yes. But close behind that declaration, she’ll say something like, “But I am not very good at it.” That answer is probably not a surprise when you consider my first two discoveries. If people are unable to share the basics of Christianity and they are unable to explain why they believe what they do, that is going to make sharing Christ with others particularly challenging. But beyond that, many Christians think evangelism involves a different kind of engaging with people than what they already do day to day. The result is when they do try to share with others, they get stiff and awkward and sometimes argumentative. No wonder they don’t feel very good at it! Perhaps you have been telling those under your pastoral care to share Christ more. That’s all well and good if they know how to do so in a manner that will resonate with the listener. But I doubt that’s a reasonable assumption.
Now you might guess that I am sharing these thoughts as a knock on the average American Christian. But that is not my point at all. I am sharing these thoughts because I think as church leaders, we are largely responsible for what the average American Christian looks like. And what I have discovered is that we have failed those under our care. Indeed, I failed those under my care.
There are all kinds of great things I can do as a pastor. I can exegete passages, so people are aware of Scriptural details. I can lead people in great community programs that meet important needs. I can see that kids and teens have places to hang out in what we might call a better environment. I can even lead my congregation to give generously to “professional” evangelists and missionaries. But if in all that, I am not seeing to it that those who call themselves Christians can clearly communicate what Christianity is all about, are able to explain why they believe what they believe, and know how to share comfortably with others, I have fallen short in my calling. Perhaps you have too.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.