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Coffee Shop ConversationsMaking the Most of Spiritual Small Talk
By Dale Fincher Jonalyn Fincher
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Charles Dale Fincher and Jonalyn Grace Fincher
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Is My Neighbor?
We both grew up in a tradition keen on evangelizing. Following a grandparent's example, I (Jonalyn) applied a litmus test question for all my new friends. "If you were to die tonight, do you know where you'd go?" I read soul-winning guidelines and tracts that promised to get people saved without them suspecting a thing. I proselytized out of fear for my friends' eternal destiny. On the surface I was successful: many of my friends converted.
I (Dale) also used similar tactics explained by my Christian school teachers. Layered on top of my concern that my friends were headed to hell, I was motivated by guilt. If I didn't share immediately and directly, I would disappoint God and miss my sole purpose as a young Christian. I spent most of my formative years in Christian culture riddled by a feeling of failure.
We've come to wonder how many of our friends, when "conversions" did happen, prayed the sinner's prayer to soothe our evangelical fervor. Rarely did we witness a truly changed person. For most, even after the appropriate prayer and the congratulations of an elated youth group, Jesus was no more alive in our friends' daily lives, romantic hopes, college plans, or friendships than he was before. In fact, once a friend "converted," Jesus barely ever reentered our conversation. We'd done our job, they'd done theirs, and the memory was slightly embarrassing to revisit.
Winning a fast-track conversion by simply telling someone that "Jesus saves" is less honest and even easier than sharing what Jesus really means in our lives. If we admit that Christianity is no picnic, and that Jesus often leaves us walking in mysteries, two surprises await us. First, we'll ask ourselves many of the same questions that only "nonbelievers" are supposed to ask. Second, we'll discover that our friends listen longer and with genuine interest. An open, personal dialogue with our friends is most likely when we open a window into our own souls, confessing doubts and disappointments with God. Honesty makes spiritual conversations work.
Most of us are scarcely willing to imagine the help and comfort non-Christians' current beliefs give them. We don't realize why a Wiccan finds hope in the Goddess, because we never asked or listened to her story of how she felt when she learned God was exclusively male. We don't realize that the Buddhist monk treasures Buddha's instruction to avoid touching women because he's personally witnessed sexual perversion in the church he used to attend. We remain ignorant about the spiritual hunger of those we meet because we fail to get to know them.
In the past, I (Jonalyn) have often struck up conversations on plane trips and noticed my internal stress as I find out my neighbor's religion. If my neighbor mentions church or God I relax, feeling like I'm with someone I don't have to convert. But if my neighbor lets on that she's spiritual but not religious, or angry at God, or any other non-Christian flavoring, I feel a tangible tightening in my stomach.
I have believed that next to me sits an "unbeliever" who needs to be saved, and until she accepts Jesus, she is a danger both to me and others. My Pavlovian reaction makes conversation awkward and Winning a fast-track conversion by simply telling someone that " Jesus saves" is less honest and even easier than sharing what Jesus really means in our lives. agenda-driven from the start. In some cases I find myself believing that non-Christians are actually societal threats capable of shredding family values, corrupting morality, voting liberal, and mocking everything for which I stand. If I befriend them without saving them first, I might be corrupted by them! So I gear up to share the salvation message.
Perhaps you can relate to the fevered feeling to share Christ and discharge your duty. Perhaps you've ended up saying things that prove you don't really care to listen, like, " Jesus hung on Calvary for your sins" - as if the listener knows what Calvary means or who Jesus is or what sin is.
On one popular radio show we heard recently, professional apologists tried to bully college students into conversion by berating them with the Ten Commandments and the question, "How have you broken these?" The apologists followed up by pushing into the young people's lives with questions like, "Have you ever lusted after a woman? Jesus says that's the same as committing adultery with her in your heart." At this point most of the students excused themselves. Some explained they were Buddhists or atheists; some confessed their disbelief in the Bible.
Regardless, the apologists dismissed the students' point of view, ending any hope for mutual respect in the conversation. We heard the apologists announce the universal need for a savior and smoothly introduce Jesus and the "plan" of salvation. Few, if any students, accepted Jesus. It didn't matter; the radio host praised this apologist for his boldness and the method as a great way to witness and stand up for your faith. We groaned because we used to do the same thing.
One honest friend admits that talking about his faith is like intellectual arm wrestling. "If I don't crush them, I've lost. If I budge toward them, they've won." Evangelism is not arm wrestling, where we have to clench our teeth and monologue our point of view because we're afraid of losing, afraid this unbeliever might win the argument. Talking about Jesus isn't a contest.
For years we thought sharing our faith meant saying the right things to get people saved. But whenever we treat our friends as problems to solve or objects to fix, we are not relating to them as people. As one wise man said, "You can't have a relationship with someone if you're objectifying them." Women don't want men objectifying them as trophies; neither do our friends want us objectifying them as potential converts.
Perhaps we never risk sharing Jesus, because we know from experience that Christians already have a bad reputation for being pushy about their faith. We grow understandably nervous around non-Christians so we never utter a word about our faith, trying to be a good example, hoping they'll ask us a question one day. If our friend is hostile to religion, we carefully avoid any talk about God for fear of giving offense. Sometimes we simply have no idea what to say to someone so different from us.
Categorization and Calcification
We all once lived in a world without hard categories defining others and their beliefs. In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard reminds us of the ways we saw the world as children. Dillard is five when she realizes a world outside her window connects with her own. "Men with jackhammers broke up Edgerton Avenue. When I lay to nap, I listened. One restless afternoon I connected the new noise in my bedroom with the jackhammer men I had been seeing outside. I understood abruptly that these worlds met, the outside and the inside."
I (Dale) remember my own days connecting those dots, smiling when I discovered that the same mall we arrived at by car could be reached through back alleys on my bike. Or when I saw Mrs. Carver, my fourth-grade teacher, eating at a restaurant and dressed in street clothes. I discovered, to my surprise, that my teacher could appear in public, that she could live beyond the decorated walls of her classroom.
As children, when surprises jolt us, we simply adjust to the reality. When we're young, we bend ourselves to the changing shape of our world. But somewhere around junior high, the world's fluid categories begin to solidify. We begin to place people into boxes: jock, popular, nerd, pretty, gay, straight, the sick kid, the rich kid, the troublemaker.
As children, we were quick to reassign categories based on the steady inflow of new information. We had no choice; we had to assimilate. As adults, however, we resist modifying our categories. We surround ourselves with friends who affirm our calcified opinions. Our views of science, politics, money, class, and religion - of how things ought to be - are reinforced by the denomination or church small group we join. We justify our hard-line stances with our education and even our own interpretation of Scriptures. When our categories become more important than the people in the categories, we have become thoroughly modern adults who know how to justify our distance from our neighbor.
When my (Dale's) mom fought cancer, she remarked, "I'm not a cancer patient - I'm a person who has cancer!" By this point my mom had lost all her hair. She wore a wig, not for her own vanity, but to help people uncomfortable with her baldness. When her wig irritated her head, she'd whip it off without warning. She was right: people categorized her as a bald lady, as a cancer patient, as a dying person. But she was a person first, eager to keep living life.
The reason we need to hold our categories loosely is not that categories are inherently bad, but that often our categories are incorrect. We file people in the wrong places and leave them there. Yet a child's humility teaches us to willingly bend to fit the world. Walling people into categories prevents us from loving them.
Social psychologists tell us we make up our mind about someone in minutes - all the more reason to consciously hold our categories loosely over the course of a life. If we label a teen as a misfit, we may be unable to learn from his insights about teen culture, and we may be cursing him with a label he feels unable to change. If we avoid a cancer patient because we find her depressing, we cannot learn her road of suffering. If we think of an elderly man as obsolete as he slowly writes a check in the grocery line, we cannot allow his slow pace to question our frenzied overachieving. If we think of a Sikh as someone who needs converting, we cannot learn what she believes about God. Unless we get to know our neighbors beyond their labels, we cannot make the most of our spiritual conversations with them.
In grammar school, I (Jonalyn) met Sakina, a girl from a Sikh family. Though I knew nothing about Sikhs, I knew they were not Christians, which meant their religion was wrong. I realized I might be her only chance to get to heaven.
My friends and I soon learned from Sakina that Sikhs should never cut their hair. That set Sakina apart from us, and we revered her unsheared baby ringlets hanging way down on her back. I admired her willpower and envied the length, a living Rapunzel. But mixed with my admiration was scorn. How silly to think that long hair could make you holy!
During craft time, I worked with a pair of scissors. Sakina was engrossed in her project directly in front of me, her black curls brushing my desk. I nudged my friend Heather and play-motioned snipping off one of those ringlets. Heather pulled my brandished arm away. "You can't do that," she whispered fiercely in my ear. "You'd get her in so much trouble. Don't you know about her religion?"
"I know," I replied flippantly. "I was just joking."
I had put Sakina in my non-Christian box. That stunt was my little way of proving that her religion was a load of hooey and that long hair didn't matter to my God. I imagined myself producing the cut curl and sermonizing to her that Jesus didn't care about long hair, but that he had died for her. And with snipped tresses, she'd have to leave Sikhism anyway, right? A foolproof witnessing plan!
A Label-Defying Jesus
Jesus didn't act like many modern evangelicals. When Jesus met people, he dignified their search for the good life, giving them parables to mull over and offering winsome, playful banter when they could handle his verbal sparring. Adults shunned children, but Jesus scooped them into his lap. When his culture considered women irrational and the private property of men, Jesus educated women and counted them among his closest friends. When the religious laws abused people, Jesus looked behind the law at God's intention to give life and health. When people had a faulty theology, he gently offered his living water.
In Jesus' world, everyone distinguished between two groups, male Jews who God loved and everyone else - Gentiles, Samaritans, tax collectors, women, and children. Today we still make distinctions of who is closer and further from the love of God, like moral Christians living in suburbs and morally questionable types like drug-addicts, homosexuals, Unitarians, politicians, or the sexually promiscuous. But Jesus overlooked his culture's hard-and-fast categories to love morally questionable types. He was dangerously attractive to the outcasts in his society. Both Jewish and non- Jewish masses followed Jesus - divorcees, adulterers, prostitutes, IRS guys, the weak, the demon oppressed, and the diseased. He loved them beyond their labels, seeing them as people, bearing the image of God.
Those outside the church often understand this category-bending humility better than those who claim to follow Jesus. Recently, secular feminists pushed many in the church to fully consider women as valuable as men in every walk of life - causing the church to remember Jesus' view of women. Politically correct cries for tolerance can seem closer to the heart of Jesus' love than Christians who joke about "gays" or "retards." The secular concern with diversity may be more effective in inviting crowds awaiting fish and loaves than our derisive glances at those who don't fit our categories of social, sexual, ethnic, and religious acceptability.
The recent book unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons paints a clear picture of Christians' reputation today: homophobic, intolerant, overly political, sheltered, hypocritical, and judgmental. This message humbles us, to be sure, but we can change the messages we send in our spiritual small talk - words that are empathetic, openly thoughtful, and culturally savvy. We then can begin to scrape the canvas clean and create a truly inviting picture.
Changing the way we do spiritual small talk begins with relearning our audience. Since church authority and traditional church attendance no longer claim people's loyalty, Americans are turning to their own forms of spirituality. How do we talk with someone who has created a one-of-a-kind religion?
The Birth of Spiritual Designers
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported in June 2008 that the number of people creating their own interpretations of faith and culture is growing. While 92 percent of Americans believe in God, less than half are confident in what God is like. These statistics validate what we see on high school and college campuses, at the mall, in coffee shops, and even among churchgoers all over the country.
Spirituality is on the rise; religion is declining. Krista Tippett, radio host of National Public Radio's Speaking of Faith, explains that today's religions are "the containers of faith - malleable and corruptible in the hands of people who fashion and control them." Today people see spirituality as "faith's original impulse and essence," a way to relate to God without human ideas or corrupted texts getting in the way. Many relate to God in spiritual, but not religious, ways, customizing their spirituality. As author Anne Lamott puts it in her memoir of finding Jesus, "Mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus." We call this "spiritual designing." Spiritual designers find the spiritual traditions, practices, and creeds that best fit their needs, and many hold to their newly minted spirituality with the same fervor for exclusivity and persuasion as any committed Christian or Muslim.
How can we tell if a person designs their own spirituality?
Spiritual designers are more concerned with relating to God than following doctrine. Suspicious of organized religion, they invest their time hunting for experiences of God rather than accepting theology from a religious authority. Often they will choose the type of spiritual beliefs and practices that feel most comfortable to them, borrowing from mutually exclusive religions. They find connection with God or their higher power through a cornucopia of channels. Some feel more spiritual when they chant or beat drums, others when they eat organic or vegan, others when they wear semiprecious gems, others when flying colorful prayer flags. Some tune into the frequency of the divine by visiting exotic places to sit under a yogi, others by uncovering secret meanings and decoding messages in nature or other holy books. Other spiritual designers cling to God through symbolic images, like dangling a cross from their rearview mirror. We've met many spiritual designers who call themselves "Christians" too.
Excerpted from Coffee Shop Conversations by Dale Fincher Jonalyn Fincher Copyright © 2010 by Charles Dale Fincher and Jonalyn Grace Fincher. Excerpted by permission.
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