The Big Surprise. That’s what I call it now. When I left the faith of my childhood and began a journey into atheism, I was in for a big surprise. I knew that the people of my faith community would disagree with me and that they would be uncomfortable with my positions. All of that was a given. But I also thought they would make me their “project,” feverishly working on me out of a concerned desire to keep me from eternal damnation.
But the truth is . . . they couldn’t drop me fast enough.
These people, many of whom I’d known for years, believed with absolute certainty that I was now on my way to hell, and the big surprise was just how easily they let me go.
I understand now why this might have happened. I was a little intense back then, and people probably grew weary of my constant efforts to dismantle their belief system. But at the time, when so much was at stake, I was unfriended. And it left me stunned.
There was, however, one glaring exception—Luann.
This dear woman, a member of my old church community, began writing me letters. Instead of stepping away, she stepped forward. Instead of launching into a sermon, she opened a dialogue. Our communications lasted many months, and while Luann and I never convinced each other of our respective positions, her letters had an impact, though perhaps not the one she initially intended. And she had to wait 13 long years before she would see any fruit at all. But that didn’t stop this woman whose gentle and loving spirit said many powerful things to me, which, for the most part, she probably didn’t even realize.
Her willingness to talk showed she believed her God was not fragile. She never had the slightest fear that hearing my opposing view would, or even could, put her God in jeopardy. It wasn’t even on the table. She also showed me that I was a valuable person, even if we no longer shared the same faith views. I wasn’t merely a reclamation project, as I feared I would become to all my friends. Nor was I dismissible or invisible. I was simply a person with whom she disagreed. She was able to relate to me on many other levels, not just on my wrong faith perspective.
By the way she wrote, I could tell Luann really bought into what I called “Jesus stuff.” Her continually kind spirit, even in the face of my anti-God statements, told me that it wasn’t about winning an argument. She cared about me, not just about what I said. Even my behaviors didn’t give her pause. Luann’s focus wasn’t on the obvious sins in my life, which frankly, were pretty easy targets. If she’d pushed on those instead of exploring the beliefs underlying them, I would have been firmly convinced that the real issue for Christians was how I looked to others in the church and how it made them uncomfortable.
The big surprise was just how easily they let me go.
But here was the big one. Her personal sense of holiness wasn’t tainted by associating with me and my obvious unholiness. She displayed none of what I’ve come to call the “Eww Effect”—a sense from some folks that they need to distance themselves from sinners because somehow their own purity is at risk. Instead, Luann was right in there, willing to truly connect, to get her hands dirty.
That “Eww Effect” is pervasive. I have to confess that even with my background (which should make sympathy my instinctive reaction), I instead find that legalism and overly critical judgment are too often my response. It’s an easy place to go. And yet it’s totally demolished in the model provided by Jesus Himself. In His Hebrew culture, it was socially unacceptable to speak with the kind of woman He met at the well—one living with a man who wasn’t her husband (John 4:17). Yet there was Jesus, all about getting in there. Making contact. Being real.
He didn’t send someone to fetch Him a drink of water from the immoral woman at the well. He stepped up. Spoke to her. Took a cup from her hands. Drank from it. And began a conversation. With Jesus, you never saw that “throwing love from a distance” kind of thing. He was all about real, genuine connections. An encounter with Jesus was always an experience held at a crossroads, where soul and socializing found easy connection.
Friendship evangelism has gotten a bad rap in recent years. And in truth, if we’re all about friendship but never speak of our faith, we’ve missed the point. So yes, talk about things of faith; explain what you believe and why. In fact, our calling on this is clear. When speaking to anyone who doesn’t share your faith, be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It’s worth noting that it is in response to being asked that we’re to defend. People are more likely to ask things of friends because the bond between them provides the arena in which the questions can emerge. But when they do, we’re to offer more than friendship. We’re to offer reasons for the hope we have.
But here’s the key. The last part of that verse directs us to share our faith “with gentleness and reverence.” That means our defense must never be defensive. If anger or nervousness accompanies our reasoning, others might assume our God is vulnerable, small, insubstantial, or at risk of crumbling if examined too closely. He can take the criticism, and so should we. Christians sometimes act like God’s angry little bodyguards rather than His children, and I can’t help but think it gives God a chuckle over His morning coffee.
You may know of a person or two who, like me, walked away from the faith or from a church community. You could show them the error of their ways. That’s the typical response. And most likely they’re making some immoral or self-destructive life choices that provide pretty low-hanging fruit for such a confrontation. You could whip out a tract that walks them through the steps of salvation or works to convict them through an analysis of the Ten Commandments. And perhaps these things have a place.
But if you really want to surprise them, use an approach that is grounded in the life and love example of our own Jesus.
Reach out. Befriend. Connect in ways that aren’t all about differences. Find similarities. Walk together. Share a meal. Share a laugh. See a movie. Discuss a book. Go to a ball game. Write them a letter.
Be someone’s Luann.
Reaching out and connecting with those who live unholy lives doesn’t in any way diminish our holiness. In fact, it fulfills it.