I will never know what it’s like to be an atheist or agnostic…(or Muslim or Jew)…living in the Bible Belt, where a minority religious status can ostracize you from just about every aspect of Southern culture.
However, as I’ve grown more vocal about my doubts and questions concerning evangelical Christianity, I’ve come to understand some things.
I understand how frustrating it is when your questions are not taken seriously.
I understand what it’s like to be seen as a project.
I understand why people are uncomfortable in church.
I understand why people avoid conversations with Christians.
It occurred to me yesterday (as I was skillfully avoiding an encounter with a certain someone at the grocery store) that the most frustrating thing about being seen as an “outsider” is knowing that when people talk to you about faith, they approach the conversation with the assumption that you have nothing to contribute to it. You can sense almost immediately that you have been relegated to little more than the fertile ground in which they can “plant some seeds,” a problem God has told them to fix.
I know this is true because—as embarrassing as this is to admit— I used to approach “outsiders” in the same way. I listened because I was “looking for an opening.” I invited them to youth group events because I wanted to “get them through the doors” of church. I initiated relationships with people in order to change them, to make them more like me.
When it came down to it, I was talking at people, not with them. They were the ones with something to learn, not me.
Technology has made it even easier to develop a habit of this. Just a few days ago, Josh sent me a link to an article in the New York Times featuring new iPhone applications that allow both believers and skeptics to quickly access points and counterpoints should they find themselves in any impromptu debates. Imagine looking down at your phone while a friend tries to explain why she doesn’t believe in God!
It’s kind of funny how so many Christians insist on absolute certainty when it comes to their own faith, while their evangelistic efforts rely on a level of uncertainty among others. We expect other people to be willing to change their minds when we are not. We demand that those on the other side of the conversation take all the risks—the risk of being wrong, the risk of learning something new, the risk of being changed.
The difference between talking at someone and talking with someone is the willingness to take those risks.
And there’s no app for that.
So, how do we become better conversationalists? What must we overcome to be willing to take some risks?