Years later, the episode still disturbs me.
A few years ago, I took part in a community choir led by a man I’ll call Ben. He invited us to a concert by a gospel quartet that he’d co-founded, involving traditional gospel songs, the kind that fell out of favour with Anglicans and other mainline denominations decades ago. The group’s focus was on singing, definitely not faith.
Ben joked about the songs, then, gazing out at our 60-strong choir, remarked, “Of course, none of you believe this Christian stuff, do you?”
“I do,” I piped up, raising my hand. Ben, who was raised Christian, chuckled. “Oh yeah, Murray… of course.”
I glanced around. No one else was ready to say they were Christian. Maybe they weren’t.
I felt uncomfortable, singled out. I glanced around the room and spotted “Travis,” another member of my parish. He’d remained silent. Why? I didn’t know everyone in our large choir but knew a United Church member was also present. She too had said nothing when Ben mocked her faith.
A minor episode, perhaps, but one that I keep thinking about because it reflects an increasingly common perspective. In a post-Christian society, how do we Christians affirm to others who we are in a respectful way? Are there new ways in which we can share with unchurched people what the Good News means in our lives, ways that won’t cause them to shut down and stop listening?
The choir episode challenged me to think about how I usually respond when meeting someone for the first time. When asked what I do in my retirement, I tend to recite various activities important to me. Rarely do I mention church-related activities, unless I know the person with whom I’m speaking is also Christian.
Perhaps my reticence, and that of my Christian choir members, is connected to factors such as our declining numbers in Canadian society, and to major news developments such as the tragic discovery of unmarked graves of residential school children — factors that illustrate how Christian faith can become warped, something that can strengthen anti-Christian attitudes.
Evangelism is a word with which many of us are uncomfortable, and that discomfort can extend into how we speak about our faith — or if we do so at all outside of church circles. Many of us — including myself — are fearful of offending others, of encountering a hostile response or of simply being told, “I’m not interested.”
Yet other Christians are not shy about their faith. I’ve travelled to the southern United States many times in the past 15 years, and the term “Bible Belt” is definitely accurate. People there are quite comfortable talking about their faith. Once my wife and I were hiking in a remote park. No one was around. Around a corner we came across a family group. Within minutes we were chatting about our church affiliations. Another time we walked into an unassuming restaurant where the owner greeted us warmly, talked about why she opened the restaurant and pointed out an alcove complete with bibles and Christian literature. She told us customers often go there to read and pray. It’s true that this comfort with talking about faith reflects a more strongly evangelical Christianity in the U.S. south, but I think it also reflects a perspective that all of life flows from one’s faith. That leads to a greater willingness to share one’s faith.
In Colossians, Paul invites us to be gracious when relating to others. That could involve careful listening when asking another person what they believe and what they feel is important in life. It might involve outlining the inspiration behind our work to alleviate injustices such as hunger and poverty in our community and around the world, and how our faith helps keep us going in these efforts when progress often seems difficult.
Conveying a sense that our Christian journey is a lifelong enterprise is essential. A minister friend named Aaron was standing in line at a local Starbucks when the person in front of him wheeled around and asked, “Are you a Christian?” Aaron gave a response that likely gave his questioner much to think about: “I’m trying to be one.”