Over the past few years I’ve noticed that many Christians have a certain sense of performance anxiety from hearing a few too many conversion stories and personal testimonies. Should I have led X number of people to Christ by now? Christians who have been studying apologetics are often particularly gripped by anxiety: shouldn’t I be Doing Something Important to Save Souls with this knowledge?
The answer is that yes, we should share our faith, and yes, we should make use of apologetics knowledge — but there are many ways to do so. One size does not fit all.
The basic idea is this: there are ways that Christians ‘share the Gospel’ that are, I think, frankly counter-productive, and there are attitudes among Christians that cause needless anxiety and deflect Christians from things that would be genuinely helpful. So here goes.
You’ve probably all heard some version of the story. An evangelist explains that he was on a plane, and ended up in a great conversation with the guy sitting next to him, and before the plane landed the guy had given his life to Jesus. Or something like that. Moral of the story (apparently): talk about Jesus to total strangers at any opportunity.
OK, let’s be clear about where I stand on this:
I think I would rather die than turn to someone sitting next to me on an airplane and say “So, have you thought about accepting Jesus as your Savior?”
Now, if I genuinely thought that this kind of conversation was necessary and helpful, I would pray for the grace to become a martyr to social awkwardness. However, I am relieved of this necessity by the simple recognition that before I was a Christian, back when I was an agnostic and later an atheist, I was JUST AS RESERVED as I am now.
When I am on a plane (train, bus, etc) my attention is focused on not interacting with strangers. Eye contact when necessary for politeness, as in, thank you for helping me not drop my suitcase on the nice lady in 22C’s head as I put it in the overhead bin. Otherwise, I have my book or my iPad, and thank you very much for letting me read or write or do whatever introvert thing I am doing.
I like talking to my friends, and to students, and to audiences who have for some reason chosen to listen to me talk about poetry or apologetics or what-have-you. That is in an entirely different category — on a different planet! — than talking to strangers, which makes me anxious and stressed.
So when I was an atheist, I would have responded very badly indeed to a Cheerful Extrovert for Jesus trying to get me into an Important Conversation for My Soul. The thing is, it wasn’t an atheist-Christian thing, but rather an introvert-extrovert thing… but the fact that I’m reserved means that a Christian stranger trying to drag me into conversation, or to foist tracts onto me that I haven’t asked for, is crossing my personal space in a major way. No matter what the message, Christianity or anything else, the Extrovert Stranger’s attempt to engage with me, a highly reserved introvert, would end up with me developing a serious dislike of whatever the message was.
Extrovert Christian + extrovert random stranger = Go for it! Apparently you extrovert types actually like talking to strangers. Wow, that’s weird, but sure, have fun, as long as you’ve picked up on the body-language signals that you are sitting next to someone who actually wants to talk to a stranger.
Extrovert Christian + introvert random stranger = Leave the poor sap alone! You will only inflict misery and cause him or her to be reinforced in the idea that Christians are obnoxious pushy loud irritating horrible people. Why would I want to be like you? If heaven is full of people who won’t let me read my book in peace, why would I want to go there?!?
Introvert Christian + random stranger = Peace. Read your book and don’t worry about it. If you tried to talk to that person, you’d feel awkward and it would show… it would not be a successful conversation, and it’s certainly not worth the amount of distracting stress and churning anxiety that will disrupt your work for the rest of the day. If God really, truly needs you to talk to that person, He will make it happen. I’m quite serious: if God really needs that conversation to happen, the Holy Spirit can manage a minor miracle to circumvent the normal social barriers.
Remember that not everyone is an extrovert. If you are more introverted, or more reserved, that is how God made you. You do not need to try to witness like an extrovert. In fact, if you try to witness like an extrovert, you will not only feel horribly awkward and miserable, but you will almost certainly be totally ineffective.
For extroverted Christians… please do not assume that the reserved, quiet types are not sharing their faith. They may be, but in ways that you can’t even recognize.
For introverted Christians… how, then, do we show our faith in public?
Certainly we should show our faith: but the key here is to remember that small things are more visible than we may realize.
If you are serious about your Christian faith, then small things that you do or say — or don’t do, or don’t say – will be apparent to the people around you. These things get noticed: the jokes you don’t laugh at, the parties you don’t attend, the films or books you say a good word about, the matter-of-fact references to church commitments. When I was teaching at a secular college, one of the clearest public expressions of my Christian commitment was when, early on, I noted that I would not be able to attend a particular committee meeting because it was scheduled for Good Friday. Nobody said anything… but I know it was noticed.
Apologetics doesn’t have to mean starting conversations.
Apologetics should mean being able to answer a question or give a response when someone who has reason to have confidence in you asks you a question.